Friday, July 31, 2009

Time to Evolve

While I've always tried to keep Lee's Korea Blog running in the background of my daily life, I must admit that it has grown into something I'm rather proud of at times. However, the downside of this is that it has become something begging a certain amount of upkeep. A compulsory voluntarianism of sorts. Usually a week after I blog, I feel fine. But toward the 2 week mark, the impending urge to update the blog increases to a dull roar.

The main obstacle to blogging is coming across interesting things, and having enough time to post them up here. These days I'm fairly busy, and a 20-photo blog post takes about an hour and a half to organise, write and proof read (I am mildly obsessive about correcting spelling errors). It's getting more tempting to put off a large blog post for an extended period of time. I also don't feel it especially necessary to blog for the sake of blogging, and waste other people's time. My general aim is to provide something slightly informative and slightly entertaining. Kind of like a more amateur version of David Letterman's The Late Show. To that end, I think I'll start a trial run of blogging in shorter doses. Like a couple of photos at a time, and maybe some longer ones from time to time. This should be easier to manage and the posts will come in higher frequency. I'll try and keep it to every few days at least.

Because I'm living more cheaply and going out less, I may digress a little more from just 'Life in Korea' and delve into other things, which I hope will be relevant to the readers. At this point in time too, I'd like to say that I appreciate the readers out there and the feedback I get from time to time. It's because people read this thing that I continue trying to keep it read-worthy.

So let's try this out and see how it goes. Here's hoping it evolves into something that continues to interest you...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Punctuated Equilibrium

In just about every petrol station in Australia, there are a range of meat pies and pasties for sale. To a North American, a petrol station is called a gas station. This has never made sense to me, as the product being sold is actually a liquid. Incidentally, Korean service stations are often labelled here as 'Oilbanks'.

But I digress.

One craving that I've had that has definitely grown in its voracity has been for a nice steak and mushroom pie with plenty of tomato sauce. On occasion, I used to drop by the old BP on Prospect Road and pick one up on the way to university. Here in Korea, there are no meat pies to speak of. Instead Korea has choco-pies, which are large Wagon Wheel-like conglomerations of marshmallow and jam. I hope that such flagrant misuses of the name 'pie' shall not go unpunished.

Apart from at festivals and in front of casinos, Australia doesn't have much of a street food culture. This is a little unfortunate, as often the cheapest and most authentic food in other cities is sold at street food outlets. Korea is big on street food culture, although the variety is usually limited to a couple of spicey things, things that come on a stick and some fried things.

Ddeokbeokki is a popular spicy rice-cake snack here. Last week I saw it being made for the first time and was surprised by the amount of sugar syrup added. During the preparation process, this ajumma whipped out an industrial sized bottle of some maple-syrup-like glucose-derivative and glugged a good half kilo over it.

Back home, non-steak parts of a meat animal often go into sausages. Here in Korea, they're sold as delicacies. That begs the question... what goes into sausages over here? I'm not especially sure, but I have noticed that the sausages here usually taste a bit bland.

In the photo above are some various parts of an animal and dipping sauce. The meat that my toothpick is impaling is a pig's lung. I don't think I've ever eaten a lung before, but it tasted a lot like liver. When I order this kind of dish, I like to have a good poke around first and work out what anatomical curiousity I'm dealing with.

Work in the lab is moving slowly these days. I'm trying to construct some fluorescence vectors for a later experiment. In biology, a vector is what we use to describe something that can be transferred. What we do is construct a small ring of DNA in a simple bacterial species, and then transfer it to a higher organism.

And a good percentage of time in any science lab is spent labelling things.

The glassy liquid in the bottle is glycerol, which we mix with bacteria in the storage tubes on the right. What then happens is that the glycerol coats the 'skins' of the bacteria and allows us to freeze them at minus 80 degrees celsius. The bacteria go into a state of cryo-preservation and can be woken up at a later date.

You know, if you have enough money you can elect to have your body frozen in a similar manner when you die. For about US$150,000 you can be preserved and the idea is that you will be resuscitated when medical technology is good enough to bring you back. There's a whole bunch of companies that specialise in this field, which is called cryonics.

While I wouldn't want to be preserved myself, I don't think it's an entirely silly idea. However, I wonder what kind of world the cryonics participants expect to wake up to. For future society, a cryonically preserved person that has been woken up would probably be more of an anthropological curiousity to everyone, would they not? Something like a woolly mammoth? How would they go about living a normal life if they had 'PREVIOUSLY DECEASED, BUT CORPSE REANIMATED' written on their resume?

This week, the professor and the elder lab members went to Canada for a conference. That means that we had the lab to ourselves. On Thursday we ordered a pizza which was nice enough, but it can be a challenge to find a pizza here without sweet potato on it. This one also had roasted walnuts, which were a surprise.

Down the road from our building is the Sobahn cafe, which I hadn't been to since arriving because it's a little pricey. To a postgrad student in Korea, pricey means anything more than five dollars.

This cafe specialises in bibimbap, one of my favourite dishes. The word bibim means a mixture, and bap is rice. So it's basically a plethora of predominantly vegetarian tidbits, all mixed up into a rice salad. Simple, healthy and usually cheap.

Cafe Sobahn's was around six dollars and pretty good. But not twice as good as the three dollar ones you can get from the corner shop.

I tutor a couple of times per week these days, because I need the money. On Tuesdays I tutor a little kid called Thomas down at Seolleung station. He's a smart kid that I'll hopefully post a picture on here some time later.
Before I tutored him last week, I dropped by a Chinese restaurant in the area and ordered this white jjambong soup. Jjambong is normally red with spice, but this one was mild.

And on Thursdays I tutor up at Lundbeck near the Garak Markets. It takes me a while to get there and I usually teach for around 3 hours. Tutoring as well as doing the Ph.D does take a toll on my energy levels, but I'm also trying to save money for the honeymoon and there's never much left over from my student wage.

The students here are company workers and I teach them all separately. They tell me that they enjoy my lessons, which is always good to hear. Working at CDI was useful to me in this regard, it taught me how to put together a practical English lesson.
For the lesson plan each week, I print out a news article and we discuss the basic ideas and our opinions. Then I point out some specific words and phrases in the text and we talk about how to use them in different situations. Sound simple enough?

It's not always what you teach, it's the way you teach it.

While wandering the side streets of Gangnam this week, I came across this rather bemusing bumper sticker. Punctuated equilibrium is a slight modification of the general evolutionary theory. Nothing spectacular in itself, but it's funny that someone would put it on their bumper. I can only imagine their disappointment as they drive around in a honkless environment. Perhaps that was their aim after all?

Anyway, see you next time!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Brain Heart Infusion

Working in a bacterial lab, one soon develops a wider appreciation for these not-so-furry critters. There are ten times more bacterial cells living in and on your body, than your own cells. That means that if your body was a completely democratic organism, yourself would be the minority and you would be making bacterial-centric decisions. The kinds of activities that bacteria would likely vote for include never using soap, keeping a warm body temperature and spending most of the day wallowing in a sugar bath.

While many bacteria don't mind what they eat, some of the more exotic bacterial species are quite picky. In the photo above is Brain Heart Infusion, a delicacy for some of our more opulent guests. It's made from dried calf brains and heart, which is then blended into a powder.

It sounds like a kind of herbal tea.

If you are a molecular biologist (or 'molly-bolly', as my old lecturer used to say), this is the kind of photo you see a lot of. It's basically a slab of gelatine, with DNA loaded into little holes at the top. When you put electricity through the jelly, it moves the DNA. The individual DNA pieces will move more quickly or slowly, depending on how big the pieces of DNA are. So we can use this to figure out if we're looking at exactly the same piece of DNA, or different pieces. This is important when you are trying to identify different genes.
With this particular photo, I was expecting most of the lanes to be identical or similar. But there are some different patterns in there, which warrants some brow furrowing and internet-based procrastination. That's why I'm blogging now.

The living allowance for most Korean doctoral students is around $250 per week. It's enough to get by, and a lot higher than what most of the world survives on. But it does force the development of a certain amount of frugality. The photo above is of the community toothpaste tube in the lab that everyone uses except me. They don't throw it away until every last atom of paste is squeezed out. Quite admirable really. Although it gets to a point where I wonder whether the effort required to extract the remaining traces of paste uses more money in terms of calories than what it's worth.

I use my own toothpaste because I don't like the flavour of this one. The name of the flavour is 'Bamboo Salt', and it tastes just like it too. Salty toothpaste is common in Asia, and I have always been of the Minty Toothpaste persuasion.

Heather's uncle works at the same university as me, and we went to visit him at his house recently. Meeting Heather's family always involves eating Korean food, listening to a lot of Gyeongsang dialect and later eating fruit and drinking tea.

Near her uncle's house is this rather nice natural waterfall. Humans feel naturally comfortable around the sound of running water, partly because the primordial instinct to linger close to fresh water still lurks in the more ancient parts of our brain.

Then we went off to Itaewon. Copyright law in Korea has been strengthening recently, but a lot of trademarked names are openly used by other vendors. I don't know where I stand on the idea of copyright yet. On the one hand, it's a good way for customers to recognise quality merchandise, but on the other hand I do think that the idea of trademarking has gone a little too far these days.
Like this 'Yahoo' store that sells belts and ties, I often find myself walking into places called something like 'The Hyundai Grocery Store', and thinking "Something tells me this isn't affiliated with Hyundai at all..."

And then there are store names that no-one would be interested in copying. This is what happens if you ask an inebriated English teacher to name your shop.

The streets of Gangnam are busy throughout the week. I've developed my list of hangout places in Seoul now. The first is Itaewon, then Gangnam and then Sincheon. I always like to have fun, but there's also a lot of lab work to do.

That means less sleep.

Heather and I went to a Japanese sake bar in one of the sidestreets. I like the fragrance of warm sake and I also like Japanese food a lot. In the photo above is some roast duck and tofu. It reminded me more of Chinese style cooking and was really good. Above the dish are two glasses of warm sake.

The wooden boxes that the sake glasses came in had this email address on them. I was explaining to Heather that the 'g' in 'liguor' is supposed to be a 'q', but it isn't. Heather thinks it's actually a 'q'.

Most definitely not, say I.

Heather's personality is an interesting mixture of wisdom, humility, warmth and cheekiness. She's good at convincing parents to enrol their students in English classes, but she also likes to tickle me when I'm resting.

The truth is, I'm not really ticklish. I just pretend to be ticklish to entertain her.

See how nice I am.

Sometimes the subway trains in Seoul get so full that if you're the last to get in, your face gets pressed up against the window of the door. It's always entertaining to watch and reminds me of my overflowing wardrobes when I was a teenager.

Bondaeggi are baby silkworms that are a delicacy in Korea. You can even buy them in cans. I guess it's kind of like canned baked beans. My dad would probably eat them on toast. They're quite similar to the Witchetty Grubs of Australia.

They taste alright, but it's hard to get the idea of eating a bug out of your head when you're munching on them.

In the picture above is white wine and French style steamed mussels. Even though I don't have money, I still have a strong affinity for finer foods. That means that I'll often be eating something nice on the weekend, and then getting through the weekdays on more meagre rations. I often like to entertain the idea that eventually I'll be able to eat this sort of food everyday.

But if I get to eat this kind of thing all the time, I'll probably end up craving more simple foods.

Why we humans are so difficult to please, I know not.

This is jjajjangmyeon, a Korean interpretation of Chinese food. It's nice once in a while, but I end up eating it here a little too often. If you take only three dishes off the menus of Chinese restaurants in Korea: jjajjangmyeon, tangsuyook (sweet and sour pork) and jam-bbong (spicy soup), you'll find that there's not much else left. Korea is still rather naive in terms of foreign foods, and it's one of the few negative aspects of living here. You have to search extensively just to find a place that can do good fried noodles. I've been here for nearly three years, and I still haven't found one.

But what they lack in food variety, they make up for in spelling errors. Most of the toilets here say 'Man' and 'Woman', rather than 'Men' and 'Women', but I think this one was going for the more correct plural form. Although they could actually have meant 'Meme', which is a unit of memory. But that would still be missing the 'e' on the end.

Regardless of the intention, there were urinals inside. As Shakespeare once said "A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet."

And taking us out today is this rather nice sunset seen from my laboratory window. Back when I was in the Scouts, we had a poem:

'Red sky at night, shepherd's delight.
Red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning.'

It's a reference to the weather in the near future, although I'm not sure if it's scientifically sound. Meteorologists are probably more trustworthy than poets, but then again meteorologists don't give us useful phrases that are easy to recite.

That's all from me this time. See you soon!