Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A New Start

I've been here since January 2009, putting in 70+ hour working weeks while still trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life with Heather. Since joining the lab here, I haven't posted a whole lot of details of the working environment, partly because life here is really tough. I try to keep this little blog as positive as possible, for various reasons, but here will be one exception.
Today I quit my PhD program and packed up all my belongings. Next week I'm beginning a brand new PhD in ovarian cancer research. I've spent a year and 3 months working in the plant bacteriology lab, but it hasn't entirely been a wasted effort.

I ran away from home when I had just turned 16 years old and never returned. I get along with my parents now, but I had all sorts of identity issues when I was a youngster. I quit school, got into a lot of trouble with the police and was even homeless at one stage. But things changed and I was lucky enough to have some incredibly good friends who helped pull me through the bad times. Without them, it wouldn't have happened. I went back to school, worked in various jobs and graduated from the University of Adelaide while supporting myself. This may all be part of a longer blog post in the distant future, but the purpose of letting this out now is to give you the idea that I'm not a particularly fragile or oversensitive person.
Mentally, I feel like I'm pretty much as tough as nails, albeit a little cocky at times. So when I say that doing a PhD at Seoul National University in the Agricultural Biotechnology department is tough, I mean that it really is a matter of emotional survival.
My aim here is not to slander the department, but rather to tell the truth for what it is.

Korean education culture is highly competitive and automated. Students are often encouraged to sacrifice important aspects of a healthy childhood in order to become academically superior to their peers. From middle school, nearly all students are expected to attend hagwons (cram schools), adding hundreds of study hours to the regular school program. Exam study periods are vicious, sleepless periods of the year where even the businesses here adjust their timetables to compensate for the change. Many Korean parents are under the belief that family honour is at stake if their children can't get into a good university. This isn't all bad, because Korean students rank very highly in international assessments and the national economy continues to excel. But the downside of this system is an unusual number of student suicides, and a generation of adolescents lacking basic social skills.

Seoul National University recruits the best students in Korea. So what effectively happens is that you get three kinds of students here. Type A are the brilliant, gifted, hard working types who spawn emeritus professors. Type B are people like me, who for whatever reason, have had fortune smile upon them and they somehow ended up on the enrolment list. And Type C are what I call the 'pathologically determined'. These are the ones who have had enormous pressure from their families to sacrifice everything for academia. While not being innately brilliant minds, they make up for it with brute determination and an astronomical number of sleepless nights. Instead of figuring out the best way to climb over the mountain, Type C students simply headbutt the thing until it dissolves.

A few years ago, our lab had 5 Type A doctoral students. Their names are Dr JG Kim, Dr JH Oh, Dr YS Kang, Dr JW Kim and Dr OH Choi. As you can see, they all graduated. I've only met three of them, but from their publications and email correspondence I can tell that they all deserved their degrees. At SNU, you have to publish in prominent journals to be even eligible to graduate. This means that if your research isn't up to scratch, you could be stuck here for a long time. An 8-year PhD is not out of the question. What happened in our lab was that the Type A's made it through, and the last one left soon after I arrived.

When I arrived in January 2009 as an enthusiastic young doctoral student, I was placed under the direct mentorship of an exceptionally prickly Type C. I'm not going to name him, but he has been in the lab for the past 5 years and hasn't published anything, nor is he even going to graduate in the next 2 years. This can sometimes be put down to bad luck: in science you have to be working on a project that can produce results, and not all of them will. But in his case, it's purely a matter of laziness.

When you're given a mentor in a lab, you are completely dependent on them for the first few months. Labs and lab equipment are quite complex for any newcomer. In the first week, my Type C mentor was very friendly to me. He gave me three packets of Shin Ramyeon as a gift. A strange gift, but a gift nonetheless.
The following week he started clicking his fingers at me. He'd say "Rhee (Lee), come here" accompanied with a small *click*. I didn't let it bother me too much. However this soon evolved to "Ya!" *CLICK!*. I still didn't complain.
Two weeks later he stopped saying anything. He'd just walk swiftly past my desk, click his fingers in my face and then walk off somewhere. This meant that I was supposed to follow him somewhere in the lab, for a new 'science lesson'. In the end I asked him not to click his fingers at me, in a polite enough way. He responded and said that because he was my 'senior' in the lab, I should respect him.
This was the beginning of our toxic working relationship.

Over the coming months I learned that not only was he uninterested in science, he was rather inept, selfish, clumsy and lazy. I put up with things for as long as I could, but eventually I just snapped. We had a major falling out and he refused to talk to me for the next 6 months or so. That was hard, and I ended up working alone, which unsurprisingly was much better than working with him. But it wasn't enough for him to leave me alone, he felt compelled to 'teach me a lesson' for disrespecting him. He waged a campaign of passive-aggressiveness, not just on me, but also on Se-Kyung and Chen Jing (the two other 'juniors' in the lab). He is a prickly person by nature and almost universally despised by everyone who knows him well. His revenge involved weeks of repeatedly slamming our cupboard doors, rattling his glass tubes while walking behind us, coughing loudly everytime we went near him and once he even stole my piece of birthday cake. This guy is 35 years old but his behaviour reminded me of our family sibling quarrels when we were 6 years old.

Okay, so any normal mature PhD student would attempt to fix this and get on with their work, right? I tried to make up with him on numerous occasions. On his birthday I gave him an envelope with the equivalent of US$100 in it. I privately told him that I was sorry for all the trouble and that I hoped we could work together well in future. He told me that he is very good at science and seemed very happy. That lasted about one week. I tried so hard to make it work, ignoring his habits and trying to appease him, but in the end it was just impossible. This Type C puzzled me so much with his endless and unwavering annoyance that I began to think that there might be a deeper psychological problem. After much reading online, I found some information on Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This particular disorder is characterized by "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and a lack of empathy."

The more I read about it, the more I was convinced that my Type C mentor was suffering from Malignant Narcissism, a more developed but theoretical form of the disease. I began discussing this with Chen-Jing and she agreed that he satisfied every criteria admirably. Eventually I emailed Dr David Thomas, an American psychologist, and asked him for advice. He told me that my situation was 'unenviable' and suggested that I should ignore him as much as possible and perhaps keep a diary of events for future reference.
My diary started filling up with entries.

Eventually I composed all of my thoughts into a single file and posted it on Helium, a website where you can write articles on suggested topics and then have it rated by members of the community. The article I wrote was voted 4 out of 47. If you're interested, you can read it here. The problem with Narcissism is that it is such a bizarre and rare disorder, others can't help but look at you oddly once you start talking about it in any great detail.

So then you may conclude that it would be best to take the matter to the professor and he can deal with it. That would be an incorrect assumption. Mental health is a taboo topic in Korea, and rarely discussed. Although our professor knew about the situation, the system at SNU just doesn't work in logical ways. Once a PhD student is accepted, there is no formal way to force a student to leave. They can only leave of their own free will, or be asked to leave. Our professor asked him to leave, but he just refused. Furthermore, the Type C mentor is devious enough to know exactly how to behave at the right times. Whenever the professor is around, he completely changes his personality into an obedient and humble student.

To make matters worse, the agricultural department at SNU is a highly conservative environment, in a conservative society. The other two Korean students in the lab, who have been here for 4 and 5 years, have been strictly adhering to the 'Korean code'. This states that no matter how bad a 'senior' may be, Confucian wisdom tells us to tolerate and respect them nonetheless. It is this ingrained idea in much of the student body here that makes life so difficult. Mutual respect and merit are revolutionary 'Western ideas' to them, and any debate about the topic gets turned into them accusing me of not understanding Korean culture. Thus, any dispute between Type C mentor and juniors gets turned automatically into the fault of the juniors. I have been enduring this situation for 15 months.

Two weeks ago I was really frustrated in the lab, but had been pretty good up until that point. Type C mentor was on a warpath. He was standing over a machine I was using and shaking his head, making noises and generally trying to get my attention. I would normally ignore him. That night, I was highly annoyed at Korean #2 turning off my PCR machine and ringing me at night to tell me that it was against the rules to use the machine overnight. He had switched off my machine and just told me that I couldn't use the machine over the phone. Seniors will do that kind of thing here. So I had to walk back from my dormitory to transfer the ligation I had been working on for many weeks. Type C mentor knew how annoying this was and thought it would be a great opportunity to upset me. I was at my lab bench, transferring the experiment and he was trying to provoke a reaction out of me by carrying on. He eventually started staring at me, so I just stared straight back at him. Then he scoffed at me in Korean and said "What are you looking at, huh? What's your problem?"
The background to the situation was that he had been annoying me for months, and had found the one night of the year that I'd snap. So I snapped and told him with true Australian passion "Man, fuck you".

I apologise to the young student that I tutor, Thomas, who reads this blog. I don't often swear, and swearing is not good. Mr Lee was just very frustrated at that time.

Anyway, Type C mentor doesn't really understand English swear words at all, so I felt the need to elaborate. It was a bizarre situation. Soon after that he had both hands around my neck, in a choke hold, with his fingers squeezing my windpipe. This guy is about 20 centimetres taller than me and about 30 kilograms heavier, I kid you not. He's like one big ugly bear, with bad teeth, who doesn't wash.

10 seconds after my air supply was cut off, I began to worry about fainting. I had taken a fairly deep breath, but he wasn't letting go. He had lost control and was screaming Korean swear words straight into my right ear with an excessive amount of ballistic saliva. He had lifted me up off my chair by my neck and pinned me against my lab bench with his large belly. Imagine a hippopotamus strangling a chihuahua over a bench. People who are familiar with psychology may be inclined to categorise this outburst as something called Narcissistic Rage. Eventually, Korean #3 came to my aid and yelled at him to stop. I composed myself, yelled at him not to touch me, and quickly went home because his eyebrows were so high up on his forehead with craziness that his forehead had actually disappeared somewhere into thin air. I've seen a fair amount of violent craziness in my life, but this disturbed me. Especially because it was in a lab and we hadn't been drinking at all. I went home and my wife took photos of the blood blisters and swelling on my neck. My wife is awesome.

I shouldn't have sworn at him, but physical violence in a place of learning is something different, right? Not according to Korean standards. I took the next day off and learned through the nicer lab members that Type C mentor, Korean #2 and Korean #3 had a one hour meeting that morning and arrived at the conclusion that I was to be blamed. An odd story that was somehow quite different to the true one in important aspects ended up being reported to the professor. Although disagreeing with his behaviour, Korean #2 and #3 found it appropriate to once again protect the guilty and uphold the ever-logical Korean Way.

After I yelled at the professor over the phone for not believing me, I realised that things were beginning to get dangerous for my mental health. I went to the professor's office the next morning and took full responsibility for swearing at a senior. We didn't talk about it further. Then I told him that it would not be helpful for me to stay in the lab any longer because my mental well-being was at stake. But I was not ready to give up science, because it was my lifelong passion and I knew I had potential to contribute something useful. He understood and told me that he would recommend me to any other laboratory.

So I've been taking a Cell and Cancer class this semester, even though my major was plant bacteriology. It was mainly because the classes in the Ag Biotech department are usually entirely in Korean and quite low in quality. That's a whole different story. Cell and Cancer was taught in English, so I chose it out of pure interest.

Two weeks before I was strangled, a new Canadian professor started teaching the classes. I was very impressed with his friendliness and humble approach to teaching. As a complete stab in the dark, I decided to walk over to his office and ask if he was willing to accept me as a new student quitting an old program.

He's only been here for two months and is part of a new program called Biomodulation, involving extensive inter-disclipinary collaboration amongst the biosciences. They've built a new building on campus for it.

After briefly explaining my situation without trying to sound like a complete nut, he told me that he was impressed with my communication skills and was interested. He actually thought I had come to discuss his lecture content and seemed a little taken aback when I told him it was about something else. After a few more meetings over the past week, he's organised for me to start a PhD with him in ovarian cancer research, from May 1st.

This is the new building from the other side. I now affectionately refer to it as 'The Promised Land'.

My old professor was incredibly supportive of me, even though I know it must have been frustrating for him to lose a student. He's done what he can in a tough situation, and I don't blame him for anything. He can turn good students into excellent post-docs, but he can't change losers into winners. And the school won't let him kick out a menace.

But things didn't go as smoothly as we had hoped. I went to the admin office of our department and explained that I was enrolled, had the support and acceptance of both professors and wanted to transfer. Unfortunately though, no student has ever transferred their program in the history of our department. Once a student chooses a professor, it's seen as some kind of a blood-bond for life. That's how old-fashioned the system is here.

Furthermore, because there were no written rules or documents about 'transferring', nobody knew what to do. With the aid of the director, we eventually determined that there was no rule stating that I couldn't simply enrol in a new program while still enrolled in a different one.

So what I have to do is apply for enrolment to the new program, submit all of my previously submitted documents and sit through an interview even though I've been accepted. After that, I can just quit my old program. It will technically be a transfer, but just unnecessarily more difficult.

The large majority of my classes taken in the first year will not transfer as credit, so I have to start pretty much from scratch. But that's fine with me. And construction in the new lab hasn't been finished yet, so there's going to be a bit of a lag. I've spent a year working with plants and will have to learn how to work with human and animal cells.

I'm still counting my lucky stars.

If you've read up to this point, you may get the idea that life at SNU is somewhat extreme. It's true that it's much more difficult than I expected, and I was really expecting something quite difficult to begin with. But it is not impossible, and if you make it through, you'll probably be a better person. There are many terrible seniors in the labs here, but there are also some great colleagues. Because I'll be reading my own blog someday in the distant future, I want to make a special note of the people from the other labs who I am thankful to for their friendship and help over the past year. These are the good people that made my life bearable.

Our lab
Chen Jing, Se-Kyung (김세경), Gi-Yong (곽지영)

Fungus lab
Jenny (홍재일), Sally (유소연), Kelly (김가은) and Sadat.

EM lab
Yelim (장예림), Sujin (이수진) and that girl who met us for coffee today who always smiles.

MT lab
Lin Yang, Zhongshan, Chan-ju (박찬주, who I once had a drunken altercation with one night, but he long since forgave me)

Virus lab
Mishya, Se-min, Ji-sook... pretty much everyone in the virus lab is nice.

Sejong University fungus lab
Rakshya Singh, Yoon-Seong, Jae-Eun, Mi-Ok and Kumar.

And also my excellent wife has been very supportive, even though she doesn't work in science. During the middle of all the trouble, she told me that we could just leave and go to Australia if I wanted to.

But here is one unfortunate casualty of the ordeal. Chen Jing is my most excellent Chinese lab friend who arrived here one year before I did. She's had an equally difficult time, particularly with Type C mentor, who hated her nearly as much as he hated me. In fact, our first major conflict was because I told him that his behaviour towards her was completely unacceptable (he threw a tube on the floor and threatened to hit her during a heated argument). Chen Jing and I have been supporting each other, scientifically and emotionally throughout all of these difficulties. After I decided I couldn't stay anymore, she eventually made the same decision and left the lab today as well. Not to show solidarity, but because she's decided that she's had enough of the environment here and has been under considerable stress for a number of months. She's quitting science and taking a break back home in China. Good friends show their true colours in difficult times, and Chen Jing will always be considered a good friend of mine. 

I told her that I would work hard and try to become a professor in 7 years, and if it happens, then I'll offer her the first job in my lab as a technician.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Statistically Probable Thought #1

Statistically Probable Thoughts is a new feature I'm going to start including. It's tempting to call it Random Thoughts, but the more I think about the word 'random' the less appealing it becomes. The word random is often misused, especially in the blogging world. True randomness is often seen in natural situations, like molecular collisions or raindrops falling from the sky. However, any thought from a human being is unlikely to be truly random, due to the nature of thought itself. Babies might have random thoughts, but the older we get, the more our seemingly spontaneous thoughts are actually the cumulative result of previous mental experiences that were bound to happen. Thus, it would be more accurate to describe them as Statistically Probable Thoughts.

This feature is an outlet for thoughts that I come across from time to time. I sometimes have some quite interesting, but utterly useless thoughts in the shower, and occasionally on the bus. If I don't write them down, I'm likely to forget them. For example, I'm well aware that I've had such thoughts before, but can't remember any right now.

Except for this one that I had today when talking to my friend Kumar Sharma, a Nepali student at Sejong University. During a conversation about life he said "Everything happens for a reason".
This is a perfectly well-meaning and nice statement, but my habitual overanalysis clung to it like a periwinkle on a rock. Stating that everything happens for a reason is hard to scientifically disprove, with the exception of perhaps, the Big Bang. However this quote implies that everything happens for a singular reason, which we may like to think of as being a good one.

This is nice, but can be improved to be more scientifically sound (at the expense of aesthetic value). It's easy to assign a reason to everything that happens, especially in retrospect. For example we can say that an orange suddenly fell off the tree because it had matured to the stage at which oranges are statistically likely to fall off. We could also say that it fell off to remind us of the value of fruit in our lives. But the more you think about it, the more reasons you can come up with. You could say that it fell off to impart momentum through collision with the fourth nearest water molecule in the air at the time. In fact, we can imagine an infinite number of reasons why the orange fell off the tree.

Therefore the quote "Everything happens for a reason" is a gross understatement. A more scientifically sound quote would be "Everything happens for reasons."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Quote Dump #8

"Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?" - Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Arisu - Seoul City Tap Water

If you live in the Seoul metropolitan area, chances are that your tap water is safe to drink. As quoted by the Office of Waterworks website, "Although an immense amount of money goes into supplying city water, irrational fears prevent many citizens from consuming it."

When I first came to Korea, there was mixed information on how safe the tap water was to drink. The good folks at Dave's suggested that because most of the locals didn't drink it, perhaps erring on the side of caution would be the wisest decision. It made sense at the time as there was no way to tell if there were heavy metals in the plumbing or adequate filtration systems at the reservoirs.
For some time here I was drinking bottled water, something that I never had to do in Australia. Curiousity eventually got the better of me and I decided to find out more information on the issue.

According to the World Health Organisation, in order for water to be safe for human consumption, it needs to pass 145 quality tests. These assess everything from turbidity and chlorine content to contaminants and viral particles. As assessed by UN representatives, Seoul city tap water has been classified as safe to drink by these standards on multiple occasions. The city council has such confidence in its water quality, that it publishes continuous monitoring data from sites around the city in real time, the first public waterworks company in the world to do so.
It has also invited scientists from the US based STL and Weck laboratories, which are professional analysis institutes. Professors and governers from across the city requested that quality checks be done across the city, from Hagye to Gupabal. Seoul city tap water has passed all tests repeatedly and the Office of Waterworks here has also acquired ISO/IEC international certification, meaning that it is a qualified research body in water purity.

But the citizens of this city are a tough crowd to convince. With an adequate Gust of Popular Feeling yet to occur, it seems that people here will be drinking bottled water for many years to come. So in an effort to encourage the taxpayers to rethink their views on tap water, the council has rebranded it as Arisu, which is the archaic word for 'big river'.
There have been a few ongoing efforts to promote it to the public. The good mayor has been on TV a few times, drinking it. The Blue House (Korea's parliament) also serve it during official meetings. I gave a speech about it at South River Toastmasters one night, for which I was lucky enough to win the best speaker award. During the speech I was holding a glass of the stuff and drank it on stage. After the speech, one of the guests said to me "Now I'm convinced that Arisu is good for us! Where can I get it?"

So why are people still so reluctant to switch from bottle to tap? There are many factors involved, but the historically recent Korean War knocked out a lot of the city's infrastructure. Since that time, the whole country has modernised rapidly, sometimes a little too rapidly for it to handle. There's also the issue of manufactured demand and misinformation perpetuated by greedy multinationals legitimate businesses.
Many people are worried about the quality of the pipes. According to the Office of Waterworks, 98% of the outdated pipes were replaced by 2007, with the remaining being completed this year. However, the old galvanised steel pipes never posed a health hazard anyway, as lead was never used and there were no other metal contaminants that could accumulate in the body.

But if you're living in Seoul and you're still not convinced, the council has a special service for you. If you ring '120' or go to their website, you can arrange for a technician to come to your house and conduct a purity test on your own taps. They provide this service free of charge, as a part of their ongoing public awareness campaign.
The graph above is WHO data, displaying the percentage of the developing world with access to safe drinking water. You may rightly ask "Why on Earth would I want to switch from bottled/filtered water when I feel so much safer drinking it?"

The photo above shows a water carrier from India over a century ago. His job was to ferry water over great distances by filling up his leather skins and running over the arid land to those in need. If he were magically transported to today's Korea, he would probably be amazed by the technological development of the water infrastructure here.
Besides other things, like aeroplanes and instant noodles.

But there are three major reasons for drinking tap water, which I'll summarise here:

Tap water contains fluoride, which protects your teeth from cavities. It's one of the greatest engineering feats in modern history. Water purifiers needlessly take this out, thereby increasing your chance of tooth decay.

Tap water in Seoul costs 0.5 won per litre. When you compare that with your average bottle of SamDaSoo at 1500 won, you may realise that bottled water is a mere 3000 times more expensive. 1500 won might not seem like much, but what other necessities are you willing to pay such a proportionally enormous amount more for?

Trucking bottled water around the cities is a huge burden on the environment. It is often refrigerated in the shops and also comes packaged in large amounts of non-biodegradable plastic. PET bottles can be recycled, but recycling costs energy and it's never 100% efficient.

Another thing that you may not realise is that there aren't any strict labelling requirements for water. In Australia, for example, 'Spring' water only means that a certain percentage of the contents are from a natural source. In fact, many bottled water companies don't even use the word and simply filter tap water. You can ring the companies and find out for yourself.

Some people complain about the taste of tap water, and I must admit that there is a bit of a chlorinated aroma to it. But if you let a glass sit for 20 seconds, most of this dissipates.

Anyway, please note that the above information only applies to the Seoul metropolitan area for now. I hope you'll consider the points that have been raised, and happy tap water drinking to you all...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Breakfast At Our Place

Eating regular healthy breakfasts can significantly improve your health and productivity during the day. It regulates metabolism, prevents obesity and is also the meal that you're most likely  to eat fruit in. Since beginning my degree here last year, I've made an effort to eat large breakfasts each day. When I was in Busan, I'd often wake up at 11am, so breakfasts were out of the question.
Here at the Farrand household, Mrs F and I loosely take turns to prepare the morning meal. Sometimes we feel inventive, and sometimes it's the famous Bananas on Toast. Which, I might add, is a dish surprisingly more satisfying than one's hastily preconceived notions may conjure.

This is what I came up with recently. I guess it's a kind of fusion dish, with Malaysian fried rice, cheese and baked beans. Sounds funny eh? Well Heather liked it. And as Busan Mike will tell you, baked beans are not easy to come by over here.
Also, did you know that the humble baked bean is one of the main fillings in Malaysian curry puffs? You take them straight out of the can, wash the sauce off with water and mash them up with carrots, potatoes and spices.

And this is one of Heather's concoctions. It's a spicy shrimp bibimbap with 5-grain rice and liberally applied foliage. The judge's scores were as follows, Constitution: 6/10, Execution: 5/10, Nutrition: 9/10, Presentation 7/10.

It's hard to get nice fresh fruit juice in Korea. In Australia we have Crusta, Berri and The Daily Juice Company providing some pretty good stuff, but over here the equivalents are Minute Maid and Orion. Like most juices over here, they are not widely praised for their fruitiness, despite being present at every office refreshments layout, invariably served in paper cups.
One notable exception is this label, which translates to Morning Juice. It's made from Florida oranges and I quite like it. The price is over $3 per litre, but it's one of the few groceries that I don't mind paying a little more for.

I'd seen these little fellows around the market quite a few times before. Heather bought some recently and didn't know what they were called. Being the aspiring investigative journalist of marginal relevance that I am, I did a bit of poking around online and have determined them to be kumquats. They're like oranges but much smaller, and without much pleasant fleshiness inside. You eat them whole, without peeling them and they pretty much taste like a mouthful of citrus rind.

Which can be pleasant at first, but the sourness does make a belated appearance in the wake of the chew.

I encourage Heather to eat more of them, just so that I can see her make this face.

We usually wake up around 7am and finish eating before 8. It appears that our customary ritual after devouring the morning meal is to sit and stare at the empty plates for a while. This is due to a condition known as sleep inertia, which is characterised by the eyes being open but the brain still being somewhere in dreamland. Recently though, we've become a little more productive in our post-breakfast stage. For example, I have sometimes been known to select which socks I will wear for the day, even though sock-selection time usually isn't until 8:30am sharp. This extra flurry of activity may have inspired Mrs F to be equally as productive.

Last week she used the time to repair her ornamental plant with a band-aid. The flowering stem had been accidentally bent over and it was looking a little under the weather.

Although a newcomer to the world of emergency plant-repair, Mrs F successfully performed a flowering stem reattachment with surgical precision. We may well be pursuing the speedy recovery of Subject X here at Lee's Korea Blog over the coming weeks and months.

In excruciating detail.

As far as ornamental plants go, I don't think I've ever seen one as thrilled as Subject X, especially after being introduced to his specially-built recovery bay. 

If only all botanical dramas had an outcome this heartwarming...

Monday, April 05, 2010

Wiki Rummage #1: Grigori Perelman

And now for something completely different...

When I was growing up, my parents had volumes of the Illustrated Everyman's Encyclopaedia. These veritable tomes of knowledge were bound in navy blue vinyl and I used to enjoy leafing through them. What I liked most about them was that the articles were short and concise, and there were plenty of pictures. It never failed to amaze me how quickly accessible knowledge could be if you knew where to find it.
Since then, knowledge and its organisation has accelerated to inspiring new dimensions. The world is literally at our fingertips. Despite criticism from purists, Wikipedia has collected over 15 million articles written in over 270 languages, all by unpaid contributors. This is under the single idea of 'creating a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge'. I've always found it to be an exciting idea. What I find most curious about Wikipedia is that all of the heavily edited articles end up being written in a very similar style, even though they're the end result of hundreds of separate authors.

To celebrate such an excellent resource, this unremarkable little blog will now start featuring a new idea, in the parasitic hope of basking in its shadow. I'm on Wikipedia most days of the week, often link surfing through articles of only minor relevance to my degree. It's a part of my highly ritualised procrastination routine. Very occasionally I'm going to make a note of the more interesting ideas here, in a feature called Wiki Rummage, where I'll summarise an article that potentiates food for thought and add other information from sources online. It won't be a cut and paste job, more of a re-communication in my own explanatory way. For those readers coming here to learn more about life in Korea, I'll still be updating as normal and there will always be plenty of photos in the archives. If you find it boring, just bear with me while I indulge my shameless geekiness. And if you find it interesting, great.

So, let's Rummage...

The first Wiki Rummage article is on Grigori Perelman, a Russian mathematician who has solved the Poincare Conjecture. The Poincare Conjecture was one of the most difficult problems in mathematics, first proposed by Henri Poincaré in 1904 and remained unsolved until Perelman published the full solution in 2003. Three independent teams of mathematicians verified the solution and in 2006, Perelman was offered the Fields Medal,  a prestigious prize offered every four years and often considered the highest honour a mathematician can receive.

But in the true form of a reclusive genius, Perelman refused to accept the award and wouldn't even attend the ceremony. One of his initial statements was "If the proof is correct, then no other recognition is necessary." He rejected jobs at Princeton and Stanford, and accused some in the mathematical community of being unethical.

The controversy doesn't stop there. The Poincare Conjecture is such a big deal, that it was previously named by the Clay Mathematics Institute as one of the seven Millenium Prize Problems. If anyone solves any of them it means that the Institute will award them US$1,000,000. Perelman is now the only person to have solved one. He has not yet accepted this prize, despite living in poverty with his mother in an old apartment in St Petersburg. He has quit mathematics, avoids the media and apparently plays table tennis with himself against a wall.

All of this adds up to a very interesting biography called Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen. I haven't read it, but the reviews of it that I've found say that it provides an interesting insight into the mind of Perelman. Perelman wouldn't grant an interview to the author, and so she gathered the information by talking to his friends and colleagues. I find all of this to be quite fascinating, but one thing the book apparently doesn't address is what the Poincare Conjecture actually is. The Wikipedia article on it is also a little too technical for my liking. I guess one of the weaknesses of Wikipedia is that for certain topics, the most concise explanation may not be understood by the majority of the population.

So I've done a bit of reading in various places and have proudly attained a rather dismal grasp of the basic concept. In terms of complexity, I think my situation is akin to a mongoose trying to understand the concept of spacetime, or an ostrich trying to understand General Relativity. But nevertheless, allow me to share the fruits of my labour with you.

The original conjecture is stated like this:

"Consider a compact 3-dimensional manifold V without boundary. Is it possible that the fundamental group of V could be trivial, even though V is not homeomorphic to the 3-dimensional sphere?"


It's funny that such a short burst of words can mean so much. In language digestible to the rest of us, a 3-sphere is a higher dimensional analogue of a sphere. If you imagine what you know as an ordinary sphere (technically called a 2-sphere), what you may realise is that the surface represents every single possible point that exists at an equal distance from the centre.
So an ordinary sphere drawn on paper forms the boundary of a ball in three dimensions, even though it's represented on a 2 dimensional surface. In the same way, a 3-sphere consists of an object in 3 dimensions that forms the boundary of a ball in four dimensions. There are many higher dimensions in theoretical mathematics that we ordinary folk don't pay much attention to, but apparently they exist. I'll take their word for it. Simple objects become highly complex when represented geometrically in four dimensions.

Take for instance, the Tesseract, which is the four dimensional analogue of the humble cube. I just had to post one here because they look cool.

Mmm, tesseracts...

Now according to the Clay Mathematics Institute, what the Poincare Conjecture is all about is connectivity of the surface.

If you imagine a rubber band stretching over an apple, you could imagine shrinking or expanding it without ever having to tear it or allow it to leave the surface. This property is known as being 'simply-connected'. On the other hand, if you think about a doughnut shape (a toroid), you could imagine that it's possible to interlink the rubber band in such a way that the rubber band could not shrink past a certain point without cutting the doughnut. In terms of surface properties, this is the major difference between an apple and a doughnut. The Poincare Conjecture is basically asking whether a 3-sphere is simply-connected or not.

This is not as easy to prove as it sounds. For a start, we humans are physically incapable of observing an actual 3-sphere. The diagrams above are representations of various aspects of the 3-sphere, and the actual thing itself combines properties of all of them. The red lines represent the parallels of the shape, the blue lines are the meridians and the green lines are the hypermeridians. The yellow points are where the curves intersect. All curves are circles and the point where each curve intersects has an infinite radius, represented as a straight line. A real 3-sphere would be much more elaborate, but we're incapable of comprehending the dimensions in which it exists. All we can do is acknowledge that the dimensions do exist, and try to imagine what might be going on. The crude representations above would be as inadequate as attempting to paint the Mona Lisa using a banana stuck in a donkey's ear.

So anyway, the million dollar question was whether a 3-sphere is simply connected or not. Perelman proved that the answer is 'yes'. 

Phew! Now we know.

But what is the significance of the solution? Well firstly, topologists want to know about the properties of four dimensional objects. We primates are curious things and will happily expend an enormous amount of resources just to find something out. 

Take for example the Large Hardon Collider at CERN. At US$9 billion, it's the most expensive science experiment in human history. And it's all to find out whether the Higgs Boson is real and what the universe was like during the Big Bang. The very fact that the experiment has been approved shows that there are enough people in the world who think that the answer is worth more than 3 billion Sausage-and-Egg McMuffin Meals.

Outside of topological circles though, the significance of the Poincare Conjecture is due to the techniques Perelman used to solve it. Simply put, in order to solve such a complex question, Perelman had to invent methods that no one else had thought of. These breakthroughs can now be applied to other questions in mathematics.

And what did I take away from all of this? Well it always amazes me how some professors appear to live in their minds. Geniuses often seem somewhat removed from the world and a little odd to the rest of us. I think this is because pondering such deep ideas for extended periods of time requires a complete focus of the mind. To appreciate these ideas, one needs to spend a lifetime consumed by the subject. There's no room left over to consider the equally complex world of social norms.

The idea that there exist other more complex worlds is also exciting. For me, understanding the complexity itself isn't necessary. Just the idea that in the universe, there exist fantastically absurd ideas that are mentally inaccessible to the vast majority of us, is fascinating.
I try to imagine what Perelman felt when he first realised the complete solution to the conjecture. How would it feel to be the first person in human history to ever understand something so complex? 

Lonely perhaps, but remarkable.

References besides Wikipedia:

Quote Dump #5

"A lady informed me that I was drunk, to which I replied, lady I may be drunk today but tomorrow I'll be sober and you'll still be ugly." - Winston Churchill

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Last of the Snow

One dilemma we often face here at Lee's Korea Blog is the issue of deciding what constitutes reasonable blogging material and what most probably doesn't. The root cause of this we prefer to blame on a grad student life devoid of regularly-spaced exciting events. Once in a while, we receive a 'boring' vote in the feedback section, which is heavily scrutinized by our various entities. This is then followed by a period of deep and thoughtful soul searching. Does our formless audience wash up on the cybershores of LKB seeking witty charm and social commentary? Or are they merely satisfied to be spoon fed the detailed minutae that constitutes a generally lacklustre existence?

The answers to these questions, I know not. But last week we had some snow on campus and so I took a photo.

Yes, I think it looks pretty too.

Down in the fields of Suwon, the ajossis seem to be up to all kinds of mischief. By the time I arrived on Wednesday last week, they had managed to haul up three tractors onto the roof of our abandoned building with a crane. And there they were, jackhammering away like it was nobody's business.

Now I don't know much about demolition in general, but I do know that a wrecking ball would be more in line with the real traditions of the Korean ajossi.

This little fellow reminded me of the probe droid on the ice planet Hoth at the beginning of the Empire Strikes Back. But this distant ancestor lacks autonomous control, encrypted communications and a self-destruct mechanism, amongst other things.

During the cold winter months, one of our favourite comfort foods is shabu-shabu. It's basically a hot pot, or steamboat, bubbling away in the centre of the table to which you add various uncooked condiments like thinly sliced beef. Apparently it was an idea brought here by the Mongols long ago as a way to make meat supplies last longer.

One thing I'm getting used to around the house is finding various consumables stored at the half-consumed stage. Call me old fashioned, but when I open a can of beer I usually have the intention of drinking it all. Heather is a little different. She'll put cling wrap on a can of beer and save it for later. There's also the famous 'half a processed cheese slice in the fridge' and my favourite, the 'half a packet of ramyeon' complete with half-used seasoning powder.

And here is the perpetrator herself. I'd be inclined to grumble at her if she wasn't always being cute and cheeky at the same time. Her arms are also getting pretty muscular these days.

She's been going to the gym.

This is a photo of me, evidently staring at something of interest. Now who would be so cheeky as to take a photo of me with my own camera, without my knowledge? I'll give you a clue. Her name starts with an 'H' and rhymes with 'feather'.

That cartoon on the building is about 15 storeys high. It's a new art installation down at Seoul Station and is made of thousands of LEDs. The whole display is animated and shows outlines of people walking at different speeds. I quite like it myself.

One thing that Seoul could do with is a bit more eye candy like this around the place.

Anyway, see you soon.