Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hong Ho in Korea

When Heather and I went on our honeymoon last October, we stayed at my old friend's house for the latter half. Staying at a friend's house for a honeymoon does sound a little unusual, but it really depends on how well you know that friend.

Hong and I met in the 90's during a disagreement over a chess game. It's funny to think back to that time and realise it was the beginning of a long friendship. He came over to Korea for his year-end holiday and spent most of the time in Busan and Japan with our other good friend, Daniel. But he managed to pop up to Seoul for a weekend and I had the arduous task of figuring out how best to spend two nights in the concrete metropolis.

POSCO is a major Korean steelmaker and one of the classic business success stories in the country. During the festive season, they light up the streets around their headquarters in Samseong-dong. I think it's similar to something that I saw on a postcard, sometime, somewhere.

Probably Paris.

Heather thinks Hong is quiet but altogether a nice guy. I must say, he is pretty quiet around new people. After the addition of wine, he becomes noticeably more talkative. However, excessive wine tends to negate the effect.

It's all about optimum dosage.

Behind the POSCO centre is a Smokey Saloon hamburger restaurant. Although seemingly ignored by expat burger enthusiasts in Seoul, we find the burgers here to be quite good. Not brilliant, but edible and reasonably priced.

And they have real gherkins.

I ordered a burger called the Vampire Hunter, which had two pieces of bacon in an X configuration, with garlic and chilli sauce. I give it a 6.5/10, mainly for thematic creativity.

Hong had the Ambulance II, which is probably the best thing on the menu. It has all sorts of things, including two eggs and a hash brown inside. According to Zen Kimchi, there are better burgers in Seoul, but I lack the required motivation to track them down.

The snow has been fading in Seoul, which is a good thing. On campus, the snow tends to melt during the day and freeze at night, leading to slippery encounters. In the photo above, Heather is wearing the scarf that her mother knitted for her.

Hong, Daniel and I once made a clan in an online MMORPG called Lineage 2. Our group was called Confessions, and we spent many hours leveling up and generally causing havoc in cyberspace. Excessive online gaming with friends can be a lot of fun, and I disagree with the notion that it's anti-social. But I agree that it's not very productive or useful.
Lineage 2 was made by NCsoft, a Korean based developer. Hong was interested in seeing the headquarters, so we went back to Samseong-dong to have a look. Unfortunately it was closed on the Sunday, but we did get to peek through the windows at the official NCsoft cafe'.

Back in Australia, we used to drink a lot at bars and clubs near Hindley Street. My best friend Wikipedia just told me that Hindley Street has a McDonald's named as The World's Dirtiest McDonald's.

Interesting, and not entirely inaccurate. I guess they're not talking about the one on the corner of West Terrace.

Hong seemed to enjoy his short stay in Seoul, and then went back to Busan. I told Hong that if he lived in Korea, he would probably be very popular with the girls. That's because he has a broad Australian accent, unlike mine which has been corrupted by North American influences. And also because he has a nice personality, of course.
Unfortunately I'm not sure when I'll be able to catch up with Hong or any of our friend's back in Australia next.

Hopefully not too long.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Christmas Eve and Kopi Luwak

Yulim invited us to a Christmas Eve pot-luck party, which we were going to go to. So at around 7pm I made some nachos for us to bring, but we later found out that we wouldn't be starting until 10:30pm. So Heather and I stared at the nachos for a while and then decided it best to have our own 2 person Eve party at home.

How do you turn a plate of nachos into a party for two? Open 2 cans of beer and cook some ramyeon.

The party started off a little quietly with just some nibbling of corn chips and sour cream. By the time we got to the ramyeon though, the party was in full swing with Heather's Gomplayer playlist on in the background and me entertaining the both of us with my anecdotes of life in Korea.

Heather has been doing a bit more cooking lately and is starting to develop her own signature style, which I have termed 'Conglomerative Cooking'. In the photo above is a fusion dish she made, which is a mixture of Korean pajeon and Japanese okonomiyaki.

It was pretty good.

This is a locker rack for personal umbrellas at our local mogyoktang. Korea in general doesn't have much of a thievery problem compared to Australia, but on occasion I have had my umbrella 'unwittingly borrowed' from a restaurant collection bin.

Jae-Eun from Sejong University recently bought some Kopi Luwak and let me try some. This is a special kind of coffee that is found in the faeces of the palm civet. Civets eat the ripest berries, and their digestive tract also changes the flavour of the coffee. Roboseyo recently tried it also. In Australia, it sells for AU$50 per cup.

It tastes not so different from normal coffee, but quite rich and a little bitter. Worth a try, but only so that you can say you have.

One thing we're trying these days is an experiment involving rice leaves. But for it to work, the leaves need to lay flat on some clear gel, which they don't like to do. Rakshya and I had a makeshift idea to use the weight of nails to pin them down.

It works.

And here are my tobacco plants, looking a little unhappy after an agrobacterium infiltration. In this experiment, we use a needleless syringe to inject bacteria into the spaces between leaf cells. The bacteria multiply in the spaces and do some useful work for us in there.
These days in the laboratory, work is piling up. Science is all about reliable results, which are hard to come by. My success rate so far is about 20%, which is pretty average. It's all about figuring out what went wrong and improving on the technique. At times I feel like a molecular Sherlock Holmes, but not as smart or exciting.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Grand Kitchen and a Little Snow

My Dad in Australia reads this blog quite often, and part of the reason I started it in the first place was to keep him and everyone back home updated on life in Korea. One of the things he said to me when he was over here was "It's a good blog, but there's so much food."

And that would be due to my fixation with all things edible. Our professor recently took us to the Grand Kitchen again, which is located on the basement floor of the Intercontinental Hotel at Samseong Station.

The buffet is around US$60 per head, which is overpriced in my view. But the chefs are good here and I never mind when I don't have to pay. $60 will buy me 30 lunches in the university cafeteria, but this food isn't 30 times better.

Probably about 5 times better.

Here's Dr Jin-Woo Kim after eating his fill. He's a pretty nice guy and seems to be enjoying his life. Which reminds me that there is a light at the end of the PhD tunnel.
In the mirror on the left you can see Se-Kyung taking the photo with my camera.

Heather and I saw Avatar recently, which I didn't think much of. The graphics were nice, but the storyline was a bit linear and could have taken more twists. After the movie though, we saw these two ladies playing Brave Firefighters in the arcade.

Which was about three times more exciting than Avatar.

This year it snowed heavily in Seoul. At one point I think we had more than 25 centimetres in a day. But the photo above shows Heather enjoying the cheot-nun, or the first snow of the season. With her umbrella she looks like a smaller, Korean version of Mary Poppins.

I like the snow more than the rain, because it brushes off easily and transforms the landscape. When Hong from Australia came up to Seoul and saw the first snow in the fields, he thought it was salt. Funnily enough, that was my intial reaction when I first saw it while riding on the train. In South Australia, white patches in the fields are deposits of dried salt, left behind after the water table subsides.

But the first time I ever saw snow was in the hills of Adelaide. It came sprinkling down from the sky in miniscule amounts, and at that time I thought it was ash from a distant bushfire. That was, until I looked at it closely and realised that it was composed of ice crystals.

When I was younger, I always imagined that if I ever found myself in fields of snow, I would spend the whole day eating it. Now that I have the opportunity though, it doesn't seem so tempting.

I like the way that the snow slows down all the traffic. Everyone is forced to chill out for a while. And also, it's nice how it puts a kind of post-apocalyptic tone on everything.

These days though, the snow is starting to melt. I heard that this was the coldest winter in a long time, and we're also due for one of the hottest summers this year. That will make the field work interesting.

See you soon!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

National Museum of Korea

Every couple of weeks, Heather and I head down to the Wondang markets in Nakseongdae to pick up groceries. Hybrid supermarket giants like E-Mart and Homeplus provide convenient one-stop shopping for many people in Korea, but the outdoor markets also have their advantages. Fresh fruits and vegetables are nearly always cheaper in the markets and the ajummas will often give you a little extra produce for free if you ask nicely.
You can also be content with the knowledge that you're supporting the local economy more directly.

And it's nice to walk outside in the open air. When Homeplus is crowded, it becomes a nightmare just making it to the checkout. But when it gets busy in the markets, there's a more 'vibrant community'-type atmosphere to the occasion.

In Korea you can buy fresh cockles in a bag. I never paid them much attention until just the other day, when I noticed that they were still alive. They're sealed in with fresh seawater and you can see them happily filtering away sediment, oblivious to the gravity of their situation.

And this took a long time coming. The box in the middle has fresh coriander for sale, also known as cilantro. It's not very popular in Korea and is nearly as hard to find here as the mythical lime. The first time I ever ate it, I remember being a little turned off by the flavour. But over time I got used to it and now I can eat it with just about anything.

Apparently it's popularly disliked to the point where there are anti-coriander Haiku contests.

Our dormitory room now has noticeably more food than before I was married. There's something satisfying about coming home with a whole bunch of groceries and sorting it all out.
We eat breakfast together every morning and take turns to prepare it.

When my dad and brother were here last year, they visited the National Museum of Korea, which I hadn't been to. Heather and I decided we should go and check it out. It's right next to the Ichon subway station on line 4.

The building itself is quite nice, surrounded by native trees and a large pond. Behind the building is a good view of N Seoul Tower, which used to be called Namsan Tower.

The museum is large and it would take a full day to see everything on display. We walked around without much of a plan, beginning with the paleolithic era exhibits. The Korean peninsula has been inhabited since prehistoric times, with our early ancestors wielding stones like the ones in the photo above. They're called 'hand axes' and were probably used for meat-related applications.

This cigar-shaped contraption is an example of an ancient stone coffin, which were only used by people who could afford them. The tombs of Korean nobles consisted of large mounds of earth, which later become covered with grass. The more important you were, the larger your mound would be.

And I believe this is a bronze-age baseball cap. I've been trying to get into the sport, but it just doesn't have the same appeal for me as soccer or tennis.

But I do find the subtle tough-guy mannerisms of the baseball players on TV to be quite entertaining. They chew gum ferociously and never smile.

One of the highlights of the museum is this Shilla gold jewellery set, which was worn by members of the ruling dynasty. The belt has symbolic pendants hanging from it, and there are jade beads woven into the crown. It's considered one of the best examples of ancient Korean gold craftsmanship.

The building is large enough to accommodate this full-sized stone pagoda. I think it's an original, because there are visible signs of erosion on the lower levels. Each level of the pagoda symbolizes a higher state of consciousness.

Most of the exhibits in the museum are pots or ceramics of some sort. Koreans were well-known for their expertise with celadon, and helped to spread the craft throughout Asia. Ceramics last for a long time, and you can see examples from every era in Korean history.

The museum itself isn't too bad. I'm not particularly interested in ceramics, which constitute about 90% of the exhibits. I'd recommend visiting the museum if you have a particular interest in Korean history, but otherwise there are plenty of other things to do in Seoul if you're on a tight schedule. The Korean Folk Village is probably a better option.

I haven't been able to go to Toastmasters much recently, due to a busy schedule. The last speech I gave was on Arisu, which is the name for Seoul city tap water. For those of you who are living in the city, the regular tap water in the vast majority of households is safe to drink. The government website has more information on the specifics. It tastes a little bit funny to begin with, but in the end it's healthier, cheaper and better for the environment than bottled water.

Give it a try sometime!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Conference in Jeju - Part Deux

Not long after we arrived in Jeju, our professors decided that the conference seminars were not that important and we would instead go sightseeing around the island. I did get an inkling that it was a foregone conclusion before we even left Seoul, but to ponder such matters is not very useful. Jeju is one of the highlights of Korea and well worth the short flight from Seoul.

First up on the agenda was horse riding. I once rode a horse at Wirrina Cove in Australia, which was a rather mediocre affair. Our horse riding in Jeju started off in the same way, but then the horse-guy came up and slapped our horse's rumps with a stick. The instant reaction was for the horse to increase speed, not quite to a gallup, but to a 'heightened state of urgency'.

It was a little bit scary and a little bit difficult to walk afterwards.

Because horses are herbivores, their eyes are spaced widely on their head. This helps them spot approaching predators more easily, but at the expense of being able to see straight ahead. If you think about lions and tigers on the other hand, they have their eyes positioned straight forwards, which helps them chase a target.

I've always thought of horses as rather gracious animals. These ones were funny though. An ajumma came out with a box of carrots and all of the horses instantly came wandering up like little kids looking for candy.
I learned from a documentary once that horses communicate extensively with body language. Which, incidentally, is something they have in common with sharks.

Then we arrived by coach bus at this idyllic looking beach. It's on the south coast of the island somewhere, but I can't remember the name. There are quite a few nice beaches around the island.

Here's Professor Moon's lab from Daejeon. Behind them is a wind farm. I like the idea of wind energy, but apparently one of their drawbacks is that they chop up bats who fly through them at night.

Echolocation can only give you so much information.

Tide pools usually contain an interesting array of life. Being sheltered from the drag of the waves helps small communities of life establish themselves. This tide pool only had a couple of snails in it, probably because investigative children had plucked everything else out already. If you tried to raise anemones or other pool life in a salty aquarium, you'd have problems though. That's because tide pools are constantly cleaned and refreshed with new food every time the tide comes in.

And speaking of nourishment, this is what we had for lunch that day. It's abalone porridge or jeonbok juk. Wikipedia just told me that the colour is green because it's cooked with the abalone's digestive organs.

Well, it tasted better than it looks.

Next on the conference agenda was a ride in a jet boat. I believe the purpose was to get first hand knowledge of wave function dynamics on an extensively hydrated surface. Which, I might add, is abstractly related to our studies in molecular biology.

It was a lot faster than expected, reaching speeds of probably 70 km/hr. The driver did a few roundabout spins in the water to make sure we were all sufficiently drenched. That made my studies on wave dynamics particularly difficult.

The jet boat ride is on the south side of the island and lasts for about twenty minutes. Also available is a ride in a small submersible which can take you under the water.

The final destination was Sangumburi, which is a volcanic crater that exploded upon eruption many eons ago. The remaining geological feature is like a miniature Wilpena Pound, and only takes about 30 minutes to make it to the top. The cliffs on the far side drop directly into the ocean.

Our professor was once a student at Berkeley, where he was also the number 2 tennis player. He's smiling in this photo because he appreciates geological artefacts that have weathered the storms of a millenia.

And here's me with Seung-Mo and Sang-Min from Daejeon. Sang-Min in particular has the worst command of the English language, but we get along like a house on fire. In Korean, he often says "Lee ootgyoyo", which means "Lee is funny."

Here's the view from the top. The mound in the far distance is a parasitic cone that originated from Mount Halla. There are around 360 of them scattered across the island.

Us four guys had to share the same room in the boarding house that we stayed at, which was roughly 3 X 3 metres square. On the first day Sang-Min happily announced to us "I snore every night."

And here are the biotech ladies of the future. Biotechnology has its pros and cons, but in the far distant future humans will probably colonise Mars. And that would be greatly accelerated with biotechnology if we want to sustain a population there. In the photo above are possibly the early pioneers of the field.

How's that for a thought?

And this is me and Mi-Ok at the top of the crater. Mi-Ok is the kind of person who will talk to you cheerfully even if you spend the whole day frowning at her.

Remember Se-Kyung taking a photo of herself in the last blog post? Well I managed to see her preparing herself for another one, so I snuck in at the last minute. Her reaction upon review was well worth the effort.

And on the end of the last night, we all had some drinks at a local bar. In the photo above is our professor defeating Seung-Mo in an arm wrestle. Although our professor is quite strong, theoretically in Korean culture no one would really try and beat him anyway.

So that's all for this post. Jeju is quite different to the rest of Korea and something to think about if you've been on the mainland for too long. And if you can go there on a business trip or a conference, all the more power to you.

See you soon!