Friday, July 16, 2010

A bearded coastal savior

This is a jellyfish eating, mud loving, ecosystem restoring, beast. Read all about it here.


Slipping away in Korea

I had an interesting experience the other day. It requires a little introduction.

Every Wednesday all the teachers at my school have dinner together. These dinners are fairly informal affairs however the expectation is generally that everyone should attend. This past Wednesday I promised the students that I would go swimming with them at 4:50pm. We usually eat at 6 or 7pm so I thought I would have a enough time to do both swimming and dinner. Another teacher had also promised to go swimming, lets call her "Kim." On this occasion it had been decided that we would eat at the school and prepare the food ourselves. As we were doing so, at about 4:30pm I asked (in Korean) Kim when/how we should start going to the beach. She quietly replied "soon" and went back to setting the tables. I then asked another teacher (again in Korean) when we were going to start eating and she said "5:30." Surprised, I walked over to Kim and asked "What should we do?" She quietly replied "lets go swimming, I'm not going to eat dinner. I'd rather hang out with the kids." At hearing this I began to repeat her words to confirm what she said and to tell the other teachers that I too wasn't going to eat dinner. However she quickly "shushed" me and motioned that we should go. Though confused, I complied and off we went to swim with the kids without letting the other teachers know that we in fact were not going to eat with them.

We swam. It was fun.

Upon my return none of the other teachers were concerned that I had not told them earlier about my intention not to eat with them. They simply asked where I had been and then poured me some soup.

I found this experience interesting on a couple levels.

1. Whereas my instinct was to make clear that I would be absent and why, if for no other reason than for courtesy's sake, apparently such an announcement was unnecessary.
2. Furthermore the announcement, at least from Kim's perspective, would have been troublesome in some way.


Here is what I make of it.

First is helps to know that Kim, as well as myself, are the youngest teachers at the school. As always in Korea, age matters. If I had announced that I was not going to be eating with them because I was going swimming the other teachers, who are older than me, would have felt obliged to entreat me to stay and eat with them, forcing me to either break my promise to the children, or disobey a request from my elders. The same goes for Kim. Now the dinners are not strictly formal affairs and the other elder teachers would not really miss me (I am never the life of the party) but nevertheless they feel a responsibility to promote camaraderie amongst the teachers and to provide for those below them, i.e. me.

So what do you do?

Well in Korea the answer is often to avoid the problem altogether remembering that being indirect in Korea is usually a virtue rather than a vice.
By simply slipping out quietly we avoided disappointing both the children and the elder teachers. We got to go swimming and we didn't put the elder teachers in a position where their demands would be rejected. When I arrived late for the dinner and told them why the elder teachers were not offended because, a. they had never directly demanded that I be there, b. deep down didn't really care if I was there or not, and c. liked that I had gone above and beyond my call of duty by actually engaging with the kids after hours.

Variations of this situation have occurred before where simply slipping away or solving a problem by avoiding it proved to be the best course of action.

Anyone else had similar experiences in Asia or elsewhere?


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Youssou N'Dour

I just got turned onto this guy. Good tunes. He is quite a businessman in Senegal and it looks like he may be moving into politics.


Tedx comes to Korea

I wish I could go to this but I will be in Malawi. Its in Seoul on the 24th of this month. I've never been to a Tedx conference in person but I love watching the talks online. More information at this link.


according to Webster it means a weak or timid man, a sissy, or someone who is childishly unassertive.

David Brooks used it in his weekly chat with Gail Collins (see my blog roll). The conversation is as vapid as usual but I give him major props for using that word.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Good Stuff

Postcolonial Science, Big Science, and Landscape by Itty Abraham


Beehive School in Mzuzu

The guy running this place seems awesome.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Korea and the IMF

Here is the first part of a good discussion on the 1997 "IMF crisis" in Korea.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Voluntourism and Edu-Tourism

Voluntourism organizations have been booming for the last 5 years or so. I've worked for (not volunteered with) and done research with two of them briefly. These organizations exist on a spectrum. On the one end are those that are simply interested in placing bodies and collecting fees. They tend to be the most cynically idealistic in their advertising and the least concerned about what the volunteers actually do when "on site." These organizations are bad.

On the other end are organizations that only accept volunteers who actually have proven skills that are needed to accomplish one of its goals. The two organizations that I worked with were closer to the later end. They are better but exclude a lot of the well-meaning people who get sucked into the organizations at the other end of the spectrum.

Those who call themselves "Edu-Tourism" organizations seem to be trying to chart a middle path by acknowledging that throwing bodies at projects doesn't do any good but also that well-meaning people and their money need a responsible travel option. Edu-tourism drops the arrogant conceit that any Westerner can go to a developing country and "help" without knowing anything about the country or even having a specific skill. This is very welcome. Instead edu-tourism packages, as their name implies, try to educate participants about their destination country so that they perhaps can start thinking about development problems from an informed perspective and then maybe "help." Even this more modest goal is a very tall (ridiculously unrealistic?) order but at least it is honest and less arrogant.

I do have one minor beef however.
I am playing with the idea of starting my own "Edu-Tourism" organization and while doing research on the subject I found this.

In this guide there is a list of questions that it says would-be operators should ask themselves about their potential projects or packages.
All the questions are good ones. Their basic thrust is that operators should know the places and the people they are working with pretty damn well. The second thrust is that if you want to help people you must talk to them so that they can tell you what they need and involve them in securing those needs so that when you are gone they can continue to be met. This is all well and good, standard development advice.

But to be a little provocative, is that second part really necessary? And if I don't want to do it am I a bad person? Do I have to be concerned with the development of the "community"?

What if I am simply interested in learning about say....whale sharks off the east coast of Africa and in having a great lifestyle while doing it. And instead of begging for money from donors I want to fund my research and my lifestyle by hosting paying volunteers who are also interested in marine research or some other aspect of the place in which I set myself up. Now of course to make this little operation run I would hire local staff and if needs require train them. But I won't have any grand desire to "help the community," or even necessarily establish deep relationships with it. Mostly because I'm not really sure what that means, or that those who promote it do either.

What do you think?


Monday, July 5, 2010

Turkey is booming

With 11.4% growth does Turkey need the EU and its PIIGS?

The IPCC's glass is half empty.

Here the Economist talks about another report that finds new errors in the IPCC's climate change report.

Here is the conclusion in which the Economist, as usual, contradicts itself in order to sound reasonable,

"The PBL report does not prove or indeed suggest systematic bias, and it stresses that it has found nothing that should lead the parliament of the Netherlands, or anyone else, to reject the IPCC’s findings. But the panel set up to look at the IPCC’s workings by Dr Pachauri and Mr Ban should ask some hard questions about systematic tendencies to accentuate the negative."

What is the difference between "systematic bias" and "systematic tendencies to accentuate the negative"? And if the PBL report found none then why should the UN panel under Mr. Ban be asking hard questions?


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Bad weekend for South America

Unless a miracle happens Argentina is out of the World Cup. Right now it is 3-0. Germany has been rock solid.

Athiests can't get over the pons asinorum

This is a very interesting article calling for the rise of a New Agnosticism to counter the rise of New Athiesm (Dawkins, Hitchens et. al)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Netherlands knocks out Brazil

Once again Brazil does not live up to expectations. Netherlands played an extremely solid game and after Brazil's loss of one player in the second half due to a red card it couldn't get close to breaking the Netherlands' defense.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

We are not the same, playing your role in Korea.

Although listening in on people's conversations is pretty obnoxious, as my ability to understand spoken Korean improves I often can't help myself, particularly when I am the topic of conversation. Yesterday I listened to a discussion between between a teacher and a few students. The teacher was explaining to the students how Korea's communal culture made it impossible for Koreans to act like Westerners. From the teacher's perspective this was a good thing. Westerners are too individualistic and selfish. They want to enjoy life without the responsibility of family or societal obligations.
The conversation began because the students made the very normal but insightful observation that I am an anomaly on the island. I don't teach like other teachers, in many subtle and not so subtle ways I don't act like Koreans, and I am treated differently as well.
For students this made them ask a lot of "why" questions. And it forced the teacher to give his own personal answers, putting on the role of an amateur sociologist.
The dominant theme of his explanation was that I act and am treated differently because in fact my identity is profoundly different from theirs. As a Westerner, I have certain characteristics. With this understood, the teacher answered the student's "why" questions simply by filling in what he believed those characteristics to be.
Certainly this is one way of understanding why people do and think what they do. Korean's are fans of Max Weber's explanation of modern Western society as largely the product of a "Protestant work ethic." More interestingly this approach resonates strongly with Korean's understanding of how people in their own society function. Most Koreans believe themselves to have certain defining characteristics. These characteristics can be mundane or profound. So for instance it is understood that Koreans eat kimchi, or that Koreans work hard, or that Koreans respect the elderly.
So from a Korean perspective everyone has a role in society that they ought to fulfill, whether as a Korean, a Westerner (or any other group category) and through which their actions and beliefs can be understood.
One of the more interesting outcomes of this line of thinking is that when a Westerner (me) enjoys kimchi, or acts in a deferential way to the elderly, or enjoys spicy food, I am often told, in what is meant as a compliment, that "You are a Korean now."
Certainly this is hyperbolic flattery. But that is beside the point. What is interesting is that those who say this are seeking to understand my actions by referencing an understood identity, or role. So I am a Westerner because I have blonde hair (etc.), but I am a Korean in so far as I like Kimchi. I am not a Westerner who likes Kimchi or even more radically an individual who likes Kimchi.
In practice this allows the characteristics of the two roles to remain fairly constant while acknowledging that people do deviate from them.


Dear Prudie

I have a very odd fascination with reading advice columns, particularly Dear Prudie over at This line from her latest column is amusing.

"Yes, it's a bunch of lies, but that's what good family relations are built on."