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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Values of Days Gone By - Epilogue

Last week I drove past the old Zinkal building, a.k.a "the building with the values-of-days-gone-by inscription", and this is what I saw:

For years I drive by this building. I finally decide to write a few words about it, and a month later it's gone. As the saying goes: sic transit gloria mundi.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, by Donald Harington

It was Friday night, a week ago. I was in Seoul, alone in my hotel room, facing a long shabbat with nothing to do but read. I started reading this book at 10pm. By the time I went to sleep, at 5am, I was half-way through it. The only reason I stopped was that I wanted to give myself a few more days of pleasure, instead of finishing it all in one go.

This is an epic novel that traces several generations of the Ingledews, the first settlers of the town of Stay More in Arkansas. The town was named so by the Indian the brothers met upon arriving in Arkansas (or rather, John met, as Noah was scared shitless of the native and ran to the woods). This Indian, Fanshaw, who spoke English with a British accent, referred to the Ingledew dwelling by this name because John kept telling him politely to "stay more" every time he came to visit. So it is only natural that the town dwellers became knows as the Stay Morons.

This wonderful book has twenty chapters. Each chapter opens with an illustration of a building, and through the story of that building and its distinctive architecture, Harington weaves the tale of Stay More and the Stay Morons. The tale makes its way through the Civil War, the Great Depression and two World Wars, gradually building a world which entrances the reader and makes him fall in love with its inhabitants. These hillibillys, with their simple ways and their reluctance to adapt to PROG RESS, go through good and bad but stay fiercely proud of their home town. The men work hard, which makes them come down with bad cases of the Frakes, a mysterious incapacitating disease that makes life seem utterly pointless, but they also enjoy the simple pleasures in life: hunting, fornicating, or simply sitting around on the porch of the town's general store or mill. The wives are busy producing children and taking care of their homes, although most of them turn out to be much smarter than the men.

The best way I can find to describe this novel is to call it the "American 100 years of Solitude". It will make you laugh aloud, it will make you smile, it will make you ponder life and it will definitely change the way you think about early American settlers and their modern-day offspring. I don't recall how I came by this book and why I bought it, but I'm so thankful I did.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Seven Medical Myths

The British Medical Journal just published a list of seven medical myths, common medical beliefs that turn out to be wrong.

Here they are:

1. People should drink at least eight glasses of water a day

I always knew there something wrong with this one. Even during my military training days I had difficulty drinking 8 glasses of water a day.

2. We use only 10% of our brains

Actually, I didn't know this one. However, had I heard about it I would have taken it to be true, simply based on watching most people around me. So I believe further research is warranted before dismissing this. I'll grant them 20%, but no more.

3. Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death

I have nothing to say about this one. I'm surprised it's a myth.

4. Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker, or coarser

I used to believe this one, until I starting losing my hair.

5. Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight

Yes, I believed this one. I actually berate my children for reading after lights out. Although, come to think of it, I should have known better. I behaved exactly like them when I was a child, and my eyesight is still perfect.

6. Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy

I don't eat much turkey, so I wouldn't know. Didn't know this one.

7. Mobile phones create considerable electromagnetic interference in hospitals

This I knew not to be true, as mobile phones operate on different frequencies. Another myth (not medical) is that mobile phones interfere with the aircraft navigation systems. Yeah, right.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sitting or Standing?

Some of the statistics coming out of Japan are simply too fascinating to ignore.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

DMZ, Korea

I took a peek into North Korea today. It was a short peek, it was foggy so I couldn't see much, but it was a peek nonetheless.

With the end of the Korean War in 1953 and the signing of the armistice agreement between South and North Korea, the DMZ (de-militarised zone) was set up. Where the front line stood at the end of the hostilities, a military demarcation line was drawn, from one end of the Korean peninsula to the other. The area 2km north and south of this line became the DMZ. Today I took the half-day "DMZ Tour" from Seoul to try and catch a glimpse of The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The drive from Seoul to the border is astonishingly short. On a traffic-free Sunday morning it took us well under an hour, driving north on the "Freedom Highway". After some formalities like having our passports checked (officially the DMZ belongs to neither country) and switching to a tightly-controlled official tour bus, we arrived to the southern border of the DMZ. There, the South Koreans constructed a small museum that describes the history of the place and everyone is made to watch a 7-minute movie that shows how the DMZ today, despite the de-facto state of war between the two parts of the divided country, is nothing more than a big nature reserve (with about 1 million soldiers around it, mind you).

By far the most fascinating part of this generally drab tour is the visit to one of the tunnels dug by the North, with the purpose to invade the South one day. The South Koreans, initially by accident and later with the aid of the Americans, began unearthing these tunnels in the 1970s. Four have been found so far, but the general belief is there are many more. The one open to the public is the 3rd tunnel, discovered in 1978. It is located 73m below ground level and runs through the entire DMZ. A tourist train goes down the interception tunnel dug by the South Koreans, and then one can walk about 200m north into the DMZ, below ground. It's a back-breaking experience, as the height of the tunnel is just short of a normal (Western) person's height. No picture-taking is allowed.

This 3rd tunnel was discovered after a defector from North Korea tipped off the authorities. The South Korean military engineers bore holes into the ground in several places and filled them with water in PVC pipes. Eventually, they hit the tunnel. Notwithstanding the evidence - the direction of the dynamite drill marks, the slope of the tunnel - the North Koreans vehemently denied they were responsible for digging it. In fact, they tried to hide the fact this was an incursion tunnel and claimed it was a mine; they proceeded, in their retreat, to paint parts of the tunnel black using charcoal in order to "prove" this was true. Silly buggers.

Another part of the tour is Dorasan train station, the northermost railroad station in South Korea. It was reconstructed after the rapprochement of 2000, and stands there today, brand-new, state-of-the-art, shiny... but totally empty, except for a souvenir shop and a couple of fancy-looking soldiers. The signs say Seoul-Pyongyang, waiting for the day this train route will become a reality. A nifty gimmick: you can stamp your passport with an immigration stamp to show you've "taken" this ride between the two capital cities. President Bush visited here a few years ago, and left a hand-written message:

Aside from the fact it was foggy and a freezing cold day, this man-made piece of history was a welcome distraction in an otherwise boring weekend in Seoul.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"I Have a Bad Case of Diarrhea"

The Japanese go to great lengths to study English. Walk into any bookstore in Japan and witness an impressive number of English textbooks. Within a rock's throw of any train or subway station you'll see signs for quite a few English schools. Many commuters on the long ride to and from work will be listening to English lessons on their iPods.

But by far the most entertaining method for learning English is watching the Zuiikin Girls show on TV. These girls will teach you an English phrase by repeating it several times while doing aerobic exercises. Useful phrases, ones that would come in handy in daily conversations. For example, this one:

Want to see more? Thankfully, someone put together a page with all available Zuiikin Girls videos on YouTube. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Botched Strike

Today is the last day of Hanukkah, so it's back to school tomorrow. After almost 2 months, the high-school teachers' strike in Israel is drawing to an end, so hopefully tens of thousands of teenagers will finally start their school year in the coming days.The teachers' union and the government are about to sign a deal, giving the teachers a small raise (a few percent). This is basically same deal the general labour union (Histradrut) got from the government after striking for half a day a few months ago.

So all the talk about raising teachers' pay by 50% and agreeing on sweeping reforms in education has fizzled to a few percentage points. Nothing to write home about. Certainly not worth keeping kids away from school for weeks. The union's failure in this case is yet another example of the "value for money" organised labour get you.

The education system in Israel has many faults. Slowly but surely those who value better education, and are willing to pay for it, are moving to semi-private schools. The ultra-religious have had their private system for decades. The national-religious have in effect privatised their igh-schools through the system of "high-schoool yeshivah". There are almost no religious public high schools left in Israel, and those that are still around are typically in poorer cities and neighbourhoods. "Free education" is fast becoming an empty slogan. Parents are required to pay extra for books, extra-curricular activities (many of which are nothing but an extended timetable after "regular" school hours), school trips and much more. Despite this, over-crowded classrooms and short school hours are still the norm.

If the government does not make education a national priority (my guess: it won't), then the education system will go down the same path as the health system. Private healthcare in Israel is no longer for the rich only. Many families pay for private health insurance and many more for "enhanced" insurance through the existing national plans. Those who have, or those who are willing to pay extra, will get to the same place with education; those who don't, will be left behind.