Sunday, September 02, 2012


I'm not a coffee drinker, but I do enjoy tea. Usually that would be black tea, although I've expanded my tastes to include green tea and the occasional flowery teas you find at a Chinese restaurant. I buy my tea at any of the large "marts" here in Seoul, but yesterday I happened to notice a large selection of tea at the very back of a local Mom-and-Pop grocery store. Since I had just run out of tea, I searched for some on the shelves.

Now, I've noticed before that the black teas are less available (popular?) than others - usually green tea, barley and corn tea being the most available. But what I found at this local shop was incredible. So surprising in fact, I took the one to record the myriad choices which were available at this tiny corner grocer.

1. 마차 sweet potato tea
2. 쑥차 mugwort tea
3. 대추차 jujube tea
4. 칡차 arrowroot
5. 호두율무차 walnut & job's tears tea
6. 호두아몬드율무차 ditto, +almonds
7. 단호박차 pumpkin tea
8. 쌍화차 herb tea
9. 생강차 ginger tea (x2)
10. 천마차 gastrodia elata tea
11. 둥굴래차 Solomon's seal tea (x3)
12. 보리차 barley tea (x4)
13. 옥수수차 corn (silk?) tea (x4)
14. 녹차 green tea (x4)
15. 현미 녹차 green tea w/brown rice (x3)
16. 메밀차 buckwheat tea
17. 마테처 roast Yerba mate tea (x2)

That's a total 32 brands of teas, of which 17 different varieties are available. And not a single black tea in the whole lot!

Many of these I've never heard of. For example, I didn't know they made tea from aquatic mammals. But seafood is so popular here in Korea, I'm not surprised to find they use seals to make tea. I won't even guess what a Yerba mate is.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, as I can easily get black tea. To the contrary, I think this is wonderful. I remember The Stumbling Mother, a tea connoisseur whose own cupboards were home to 762 varieties of tea, was quite impressed with the variety of teas here in Korea during her visit here in 2007. She would have been delighted to find 17 teas at a tiny local shop.

Speaking of black tea, red tea as it's known in Asia, I've recently been drinking this tea from Antarctic adventurer Captain Robert Scott's ill-fated 1910 Terra Nova expedition. I believe it has been re-blended to match the original, although they say remains of the original blend still exist in tea chests at Hut Point and Cape Evans in the Antarctica.

I do wonder about this scarcity of black teas in Korea. While no tea expert, I associate teas with Asia. Curious why it seems uncommon here in Korea. But whether you like your walnut and job's tears tea with or without almonds, Korea is the place to find a wide selection of tea.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Coffee Shop Konglish

I have often complained about the many restaurants here that have excellent menus for breakfast (be they Korean or Western fare), but they don't open for breakfast. Hold that thought...

In my office building, there is the smallest store I have ever seen (they are a florist). It looks like it was added as an after-thought, perhaps converting a storage closet into a store. It was just amazing that the owner could operate her store from this tiny space. Well, a few weeks ago, there was a buzz of activity at the flower shop. Construction supplies and a work crew were there for several days, feverishly sprucing up the interior. "Improving the interior of a storage closet", I would chuckle to myself whenever I walked by. Well, then the dust settled, I couldn't belive what they had done. They split the store into TWO STORES!!!!

So now we have two extra-tiny stores, the original florist, and a new coffee/sandwich shop. I just shake my head when I see this place. It's just amazing how they can squeeze two shops in this small space.

Ok, back to my first point... one day I arrived at the office about 7am, and noticed that this new shop was open, and selling breakfast sandwiches. I was shocked - I have NEVER seen a breakfast shop open for breakfast before here in Korea. Alas, that morning, I had already eaten breakfast at home. And since then, the owner has been closed for summer vacation. Eventually I will try their breakfast, and give a report.
On to the Konglish portion of this post. The new interior remodeling included the obligatory "let's display some English words, and maybe they will make sentences, and further they might actually have meaning". I just couldn't resist taking a photo:

I'm not a coffee drinker, but I'm not sure this descripion would entice me to buy their coffee...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Things Old

I recently took a stroll around the rooftop garden on the 14th floor of the Shindorim Technomart. On this day, there happened to be a display of Bonsai trees on display. Some trees were over 120 years old! Talk about a hobby requiring patience.

They also had a complimentary display of old men as well

After strolling around for awhile, I managed to score a free arial tour of the Technomart and Shindorim station area. Very interesting.

On this final pass around the complex, I saw the uniquely curved Posville building where I recently lived. And you can also see I didn't throw stones.

Location:Shindorim Technomart

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Kepler and Calories

A report made the news this week from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), concluded that "people's weight, and not just population size, should be taken into account when planning how to deal with increasing pressure on the planet's dwindling resources."

In a little-reported footnote, we also learn that orbital computer algorithms and GPS receiver firmware worldwide have required updating over the past six months.  This has happened because the mass of the earth, once considered a universal constant, is now a variable.  And, one that's proving quite difficult to calculate.

Various organizations are taking different approaches to calculating the new mass of the earth.  One obvious way is to factor in the population of the earth, and account for the increasing average body weight.  The problem is this data lags the "true mass" by years, due to the time it takes to collect and tabulate the data.  Others are using more indirect factors, such as customized "fast food" stock market indices or proprietary production data from worldwide belt manufacturers.  Dr. Oliver Heaviside commented "we had heard about this effect, but didn't appreciate it fully until our calculations of the recent Transit of Venus were off by 8-1/2 seconds". 

NASA has been sending algorithm updates to it's various probes and satellites currently in space. Tracking stations worldwide are modifying their software accordingly. Individual owners of GPS navigation systems worldwide should contact the manufacturer and request a firmware upgrade.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Chinese Evergreen

I got a new house plant yesterday. I've been meaning I get one, ever since my last one died. I was inspired by my friend Tuttle, who told me he keeps so many house plants that he has to hire a gardener when he goes out of town.

I stopped at a small nursery, and asked for advice. I tried to explain that I have a "black thumb", but that doesn't translate well. I finally settled on the plant shown, and wrote down the Korean name for later research. It was also a good selling point that this plant only needs water once every 5-7 days.

Translating a Korean plant name to English is fun. As often is the case, you have to go through Latin first. The plant was called 시암 오로라. Using Naver, that turns out to be something called "Aglaonema Siam Orlala". A little more digging reveals this is commonly known as the "Chinese Evergreen", mine apparently of the Siam Orlala variety.

Best news of all was this quote from Wikipedia:
They are popular houseplants and ornamental plants for offices and shopping malls because they are among the easiest houseplants to grow. .... They tolerate a wide range of light, as well as neglect, and are relatively resistant to pests. Aglaonema flourish for years.

I'm encouraged. It might actually live for one whole month!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Rice Cakes

Korean rice cake comes in many different forms. The one I've recently come to enjoy is called 가리떡, approximately pronounced as kah-ree-ddeok. If you don't say it right, it sounds to a Korean like Curry-ddeok! This is rice cake extruded into long cylindrical shapes, grilled and dipped in honey. This is also the rice cake which is sliced on the diagonal and used in soup. I've been threatening to visit one of these 떡집 (rice cake house) for some time, ever since I heard you can have your rice made into rice cake, rather then just buying rice cake. I finally got around to it Saturday afternoon, and had about 5Kg of rice made into rice cakes. It was pretty fun and interesting, and the owner only yelled at me once - turns out you're not supposed to sit on the table used for preparing rice cake!

Step one is to grind your rice into a flour. These two horizontal mills are used for that purpose. They have two polished cylindrical millstones counter-rotating which crush the rice into flour. I cringed several times when the lady put her hand in the hopper to aid the flow of rice.

Here's my flour, just coming out of the mill. The lady added a small amount of salt to the rice on the first pass through the mill. Then she added a very small amount of water, and ran it through the mill a second time.

The resulting slightly moist bucket of flour was transferred into a square box, which had an internal vent to allow the passage of steam. She put this box on a special table which had steam pipes, covered it with a cloth, and turned on the steam full blast. It was left to steam for a few minutes - it wasn't very long.

Next up, the steamed mass of rice flour was transferred to the extruding machine! She pushed the rice into the opening, and it comes out the side of the table. She made one or two passes with the extrusion output open. Then for the final pass she installed the proper "tool" on the machine (seen in the photo above) and started making the final product. There were other "shapes" available, ones I've also seen available in the store. Note that the rice cake is dipped in a bucket of cooling water as it comes out of the machine and onto the cutting table.

And here you see the result, long cylinders of extruded rice cake! This is sliced into 6-8 inch sections, and boxed up for transport home.

Piping hot, fresh rice cake is good, but...

...this is now I like it the best. Grilled with honey. I wonder if my apartment contract specifies pets? Could I care for several thousand bees on my balcony without drawing undue attention from the neighbors???

Friday, April 06, 2012

Misc Spring Photos

Been saving a bunch of photos, and too busy to blog them. Let's go!

The first cool thing was they had the anti-gravity demonstration going on at Technomart last week. It was pretty cool to see a whole kindergarten class come walking in on the ceiling! This is just a temporary exhibit, but if popular, it will be travelling around Seoul to various other shopping centers.

Got free tickets to the live (recorded) music program 열림음막회 at the KBS Music Hall. It was pretty fun, although I still want to see 배철수 host the 7080 Concert (another KBS music program).

I only ate ONE donut, really!

Moving day. Everything fit in two small trucks.

The Definition of XENO is the position of being in charge. In other words, Boss. I didn't know that. I guess this really is the BOSS PC Zone, then.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

New Home

Because of a strange tax rule (having to do with VAT), I took the chance to move about 5 months before my lease expires. This was done with the owner's cooperation, because of the unusual and sudden nature of the problem. My new home is about 5 minutes walk from the office, probably only 1km from my old home. I really didn't want to leave the old building, but there weren't any suitable places available. At request of the The Stumbling Daughter #4, I've taken some photos of the new home.

This is the view upon entering through the front (and only) door. I haven't really used it, but there are some pocket doors which can close off the bedroom. Big pocket doors, in fact I don't think I've even seen any this large.

This is my recliner, which has truly been a life-saver. It doubles as a bed when I wake up at 3am with back pain so strong I can't lay down.

This is the bed room. Same bed and sheets I've had since 2004 (I've washed them once or twice...)

Desk, television, and computer / high-tech corner!

Storage closets and dining table. The two white chairs came with the apartment, as did a bunch of other unexpected furniture. I've managed to use or hide the extra, with the exception of a large sofa which I threw out (with the owner's permission).

Kitchen area. A little bigger than the last place, but not as big as my previous places. I tried to get the refrigerator man to swap the doors around, but this model is a fixed left-hander.

Here's the kitchen again, but you can see the entrance hall off to the right. The bathroom is off that hall.

That's it. Numerically, it isn't much bigger than my last place, but it really seems much larger. This is on the 11th floor, and the view is nice enough. It's not blocked by super-close buildings, like the first place in Mokdong. But it's not as spectacular as the view from the 24th floor, either!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Paper Dragon

Here is my paper dragon souvenir which Tuttle brought me from Thailand.

I would agree that it "combined" fairly easily, though I might disagree that he's "loveable".

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Middle School Memories

Yesterday I went to school. Middle school. I took a placement test for a free Korean language class that's held by the government. I only found out about the test about 2-1/2 weeks ago. My initial plan was to cram for two weeks leading up to the test. However, a number of crisis intervened, including a broken tooth filling and a couple of work projects went into emergency mode. Also, one fellow had advised me, if you cram for a placement test, you might find yourself placed artifically high in the classes, and really struggle. So, crisis, lack of time, and my natural laziness conspired to find me arriving Saturday noon at the testing location woefully unprepared. Not to mention I was without voice due to Karaoke the night before (yes, I know, really poor planning on my part).

Well, the first mishap is that I was nearly killed on the way to the school! It's a lovely day, not too cold. I'm walking leisurely up the hill to the school, taking in the scenery, and suddenly there's a shout from a woman above me! Before I can react, there's a huge crash on the street about 1 meter to my left. When I came to my senses, I saw what had happened. The woman was up on the third floor of a building, and was opening her window. But something went wrong, and her window screen fell to the ground. It wasn't one of these flimsy window screens like I've known in America - it was in a real hefty steel frame, and could have done some serious damage, especially falling from the third floor. If the uphill walk wasn't already quickening my pulse, this certainly did.

On arrival at the school, the scene was slight confusion, but we were processed with minimal fuss and sent to our assigned class rooms. I was told to go to room 2-5 on the fourth floor (note to Korean architects: it's often common practice to include the floor in the room number, for example, room 4-5 on the fourth floor). Adding to the room number confusion was that someone had helpfully prepared paper signs and covered all the original room numbers signs. The read something like "testing classroom 4". Naturally, the fellow downstairs at check-in didn't tell me which "testing classroom" to visit! Fortunately the original room number signs were double-sided, and by walking past the classroom and looking at the back side of the sign, you could read the original number.

This was my first visit to any school in Korea. I don't know what I expected, but it was like stepping into my middle school in the 70's. This school also had some open, outdoor corridors in common with my middle school, adding to the deja-vu feeling. Despite new trends and technology over the decades, I guess the old classroom formula still works, or is still in demand. The room wouldn't have won any interior design awards, but it was very functional, very sturdy, overall appealing to The Stumbling Engineer! One concession to modern times, the chalk was replaced by some type of liquid chalk. It resembled a paint pen. This must be the next generation of chalk boards after the white board. In fact, the board itself looked almost identical to a chalk board. You could probably write on it with chalk, but the texture was a little bit different. I didn't see any high tech equipment, although there was a ceiling-mounted projector (I guess the teacher brings in a computer as-needed). I've heard from my teacher friends how the students clean the classroom themselves, and I noted the mop and broom storage closet in the back of the class. There was even a huge open sink built into the hallway for cleaning their mops (I'm assuming the students don't bathe in the open hallway). I'm going to ask my teacher friends next time how this compares to having a janitor. I'm not sure which results in better and more efficient cleaning - a bunch of energetic kids, or an old man or woman janitor cleaning the school at night.

On the Korean language, I know my ability (not great, maybe low-intermediate), and I know my strengths (good grasp of the grammar) and weaknesses (poor vocabulary with big gaps). I was prepared for my test results to reflect this. What I wasn't prepared for were the instructions - everything was in Korean. In hindsight, this shouldn't have been a surprise. But there were some moments when I was completely lost. Adding to the confusion was simple, but poorly-explained (even on the English instruction sheet) method of filling in the optically scanned test card. Were I giving the instructions in English, I could have said it simply in about three sentences: (1) fill in your answers first with the red pen. (2) the scanner can't read the red pen. (3) at the end of the test, redo your answers using the black pen. These proctors went on and on about this procedure, and frankly I think they caused more confusion than they helped.

I was really doubting my ability after a few minutes in the class room. Most of the students were conversing in Korean, and asking questions in Korean to the teacher with a confidence and speed that I don't have. I was able to understand much of what was said, but it left me feeling even more unprepared than I was. Fortunately a kind fellow from Uzbekistan sat in front of me, and helped translate some of the proctor's instructions to English for me.

We had 50 minutes to complete the test. I would have been more comfortable with an hour, but more than that wouldn't have helped me at all. I felt rushed the last 25% of the test, but then again, with my gaps in vocabulary, and these final questions being the most difficult, I don't think I could have done better. In fact, some of these questions I probably missed because I couldn't understand what they were asking, not because I didn't know the language point being tested. There were several questions which listed four complete sentences, and I was supposed to choose one, based on a criteria which I couldn't understand!

So, we finished the test and handed in our papers. Then we were told to just sit and wait until it was our turn for the next portion of the test. I really didn't know what this "next portion" was. I had read various accounts online, that it was an "interview" or that it was a "reading test", or that you actually read aloud. I wasn't particulary comfortable with any of these, the reading aloud especially (too bad they didn't ask us to SING some Korean out loud, I would have made perfect marks). I probably could have done a self-introduction and interview the best, but alas, that wasn't in the cards. In fact, NOTHING was in the cards for almost three hours of waiting.

I should explain that the test started at 1pm. We were told to report at 12:30pm. Now in Seoul, from my experience, most people's lunch time starts at 12:30pm. I had eaten a large breakfast, so I wasn't hungry. But after an hour or so, many of the folks were complaining. Some quite vocally. I'm surprised nobody thought to order delivery food, it being so common in Korea. I almost suggested that myself, but I was so embarassed about my Korean I kept my mouth shut. The delay was due to Part II of the test. They took groups of 5 people into a room, and sat them in front of two Korean teachers. This process took about 10 minutes per group. They started this testing at "testing classroom 1", and my class was #6 I think (and there were one or two more behind us). Our classroom held about 30 people, so you can do the math. It was a long wait (hence my newfound detailed knowledge of the Korean middle school classroom).

Finally, around 4pm, it was my turn. Five of us were taken to sit outside the exam room, where we waited a few minutes until we were ushered in. My Uzbekistan classmate peered in the windows, and reported there were actually two tables of two teachers. One pair of teachers appeared to be very cheerful ladies, and the other table had one lady and one very serious, stern man. Alas, we were finally sent inside to be seated at Mr. Sternface's table. The beginning wasn't too bad. There was a short story about the four seasons in Korea, and some of the typical characteristics of each season (it's hot in summer, flowers bloom in spring...) Starting at one end of the table, we each read a few sentences of the story. I read my few sentences, thus ending the story for the 2nd time. I guess my voice was really shot, because she asked me to start the story again for a third time. Despite my voice, and despite my being the most afraid of sight reading, this was really not very hard. It was still awkward, but they had us read the story silently at first, and it helps that the story was pretty simple and I actually understood it (as opposed to just sounding out words without knowing what they mean).

For me, the test went downhill from there. They started asking us questions, and she started with me. And this is where my poor vocabulary really "shined". She asked me "how many seasons" are there, but I didn't recognize the word for "season". I had to reply that I didn't know - surely this made me look quite foolish. She let me save face by asking a follow-on question which was much simpler, to which I was able to stutter a hopefully-understandable answer. I was nervous coming into this part of the test, I was doubly so now. So she started asking other students various questions. What messed me up several times was she would ask the same question 2 or 3 times. I would understand the questions and the students replies, and was following along pretty well. One such question, for example, "In the hot summer, in Korea we often eat ice cold noodles. In your country, are there any special foods you eat in the summer?" So my brain was thinking about that topic, and I was fully prepared to give my answer. But when she got to me, she would switch up the question and catch me off-guard. This happened several times, and was quite frustrating. I wanted to scream "let me answer his question"... I did manage to answer a couple of her questions with what I believe were a few coherent sentences, as opposed to one-word or short phrases. But it was discouraging to hear some of the other students smooth, flowing and coherent answers. Especially when I know I can also speak like that, if the discussion centers on a topic for which I have the vocabulary, like food.

The test mercifully ended, and I breathed a deep sigh of relief. On the way out, I congratulated Mr. Uzbek and wished him a high score. He clearly had a good command of Korean, and I'm sure he'll do well. He was also more observant than me - across from us, Mr. Sternface, who never once asked us any questions, was busily marking our scores on the grading chart. Mr. Uzbek methodically noticed the scores we received! He told me that he got a 4 in every category, and noticed that I got all threes. But some of the other ladies in our group were graded even lower, one lady getting all ones! I'm surprised I even got as high as all threes, and even more surprised to know I wasn't the worst in the group. As best as I could understand, the scores will be posted online next week.

Being an engineer with a problem-solving mind, I kept wondering how they could have better structured the test to avoid the long wait. I'm not sure it would be possible, short of staggering the arrivals in groups - that would probably be too much trouble. On the other hand, this long wait could have been handled better, if only the length of the wait had been explained in advance. People could have made sure to eat their lunch before arriving. Or they could have brought a lunch/snack with them. They could have suggested ordering delivery food to the students, maybe have some nearby restaurant menus available? Maybe just scheduling the test just a little later, to make sure everyone ate first? As for me, I didn't mind the wait itself, it was just the anticipation of the test which bothered me. Had we done the oral test first, then waited for the written test, I would have been much more comfortable. Oh well, all said, it wasn't that bad, and I would give the organizers a B+ for their efforts.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Culture Tuesday

I got some culture in this lazy holiday - went to the theater. The Shin-Yeon Arts Hall, specifically. Chose a play at random, called "The Absurd Scandal".

That's a loose translation of the Korean title "기막힌 스캔들". That, in turn is a very liberal translation of the original title of this Marc Camoletti play "Pyjamas Pour Six", or even it's English title "Don't Dress for Dinner" (see also here). Despite growing up in and around theaters and drama folks, I have never heard if this play nor this playwright before. He apparently is famous for an earlier 1962 play called "Boeing Boeing" which ran for over 20 years, and to which this 1982 play is a sequel.

This section of Seoul has a bunch of small theaters, kind of a mini-arts district near Hyehwa Station on line 4. The play was a performed with just five actors and one set, however I noticed online that they rotate four cast members through each role, making a total cast of 20. The play ran about 1-1/2 hours, and kept the audience in stitches most of the time (it's a comedy). Even with my poor Korean, I was able to get about 1/3 of the language, and actually understood almost the entire story just from context and body language.

In a departure from the plays I've seen in America, the program or flyer didn't list the actors and actresses names (though they are listed on the website, and were also posted on a wall in the entrance hallway). Also, I noticed they spelled the author's name incorrectly ("Comoletti" instead of "Camoletti"), but at least they gave him credit. There was no intermission, I guess because this theater is so small there is no lobby. I made a rough count, and I'm guessing there is seating for 150 to 200 patrons.

This was a good experience, and reminded me a lot of seeing plays as a kid that my Dad was involved in as Technical Director or otherwise. I will definitely go back to this area and catch some more plays in the future.

Oh, and lots of good restaurants nearby.

Here's one which served spicy barbeque chicken, although I ordered a beef and seafood fried rice with cheese-filled-rice-cake "extra". Wow, it was great!

EDIT: This theater's seats were exceptionally comfortable, and looked like they were Duoback (a Korean name brand of office chair supposedly designed to be an ergonomic fit to the back). However, my back was KILLING me for about three days after this play. I can only attribute it to the fact that I was hunching down to avoid blocking the view of the fellow behind me, and also leaning to one side to see around the person in front of me.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Humidity Wars

It is that season again, time to begin my battle with the dry winter air. I've never used the heating in my home; somehow it absorbs heat, too much heat, from the neighboring homes. At least this is my theory. Consider today - it minus 7 degrees Centigrade outside, yet in my home it is nearly 27 degs!

I can't complain (too much) about this, but the dryness is another matter. Here you can see the indoor humidity is 33%, where I've read 40 to 60% is ideal. On occasion I've been able to get it just above 40. Today no such luck, despite both my humidifiers running full blast:

Looks like I'll be getting a third humidifier this season, or else my nose and throat are going to become fossilized.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What's this Cup Stuff?

Coffee cups, that is. Or in my case, tea cups. I noticed my coffee pot labels indicate it holds 10 to 15 cups. I know they use a smaller than normal cup when defining the capacity, but I didn't get anywhere even close to 10 cups.

Finally I measured things, and here's the results. First of all, the pot fills up at 5-1/4 cups, or 42 fluid ounces. According to Wikipedia, the standard coffee cup unit of measure is 6 ounces. So that means only 7 "cups" in the pot. If we believe 10 to 15 cups per pot, thats only 4.2 or 2.8 oz per cup - mighty small if you ask me.

I measured the few coffee cups in my cupboard. I would say they are typical coffee cups, not huge or tiny. The measure between 8 and 10 ounces. This explains why I'm only getting FOUR cups from a 10 to 15 cup pot!

Interestingly, there isn't a universal standard for one cup. Again, according to Wiki, the cup varies all over the place. Extrapolating from common measures, it should be 236.59 grams. But US law declares a legal "cup" as 240 grams. Almost like the mythical story of Mississippi declaring pi to be 3.00. Leave the US, and definition of the "cup" is even more uncertain, if at all.

So grab a pint of beer, and let's toast the metric system. It's been around for more than one deca-score years, and can be easily mastered in one fortnight by even the slowest of students. Cheers!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Beef Butt

Made a quick Costco trip yesterday, as always ignoring my number one Costco rule: Never ever go on a weekend! Bought a pack of the cheapest beef I could find (I'll be boiling it in soups or stews).

When I got home, I tried to translate the name. My dictionary said It was stupid or foolish! I finally found an excellent description of Korean beef cuts on the Seoul Eats blog.

According to this, I have the beef butt. A rump roast or round roast. I suppose this might refer to a fool...