On Technology

Technology is a funny thing, especially for someone who’s actually working in the field. Obviously there’s the part of developing it (where I usually come in :)) but this posting is more about how technology is used in everyday life to make things easier. The focus naturally being on the three countries relevant to this year, i.e., Finland, Korea, and US. My intention is not to declare a winner, but rather to show how (the same) things are done in different countries and how they use technology.

One of the first things you come across are the travel cards for public transport. I already wrote a fair bit about how the system works in Seoul, but Helsinki and the Bay Area have similar systems; here in the Bay Area they call it the Clipper Card. All work exactly in the same way, i.e., you load money on the card and you use the money while traveling by showing the card to a reader. Alternatively, you can load a monthly pass, but effectively it comes out to the same thing (except that Seoul doesn’t have monthly passes as far as I know). Although the differences between the places are minimal, the system in Helsinki is, in my ever-so-humble opinion, the weakest of the three. First, we have the silly concept of different zones which requires you to press a button in addition to showing the card. No, I don’t have a good solution for getting rid of the zones. Second, the readers in Helsinki are way slower than in Seoul or the Bay Area. “Way slower” is of course a relative term, since even in Helsinki, the machine reads the card in about 1-2 seconds, but Seoul and Bay Area are simply faster. For example, when entering the subway, you can keep on walking and just swipe the card over the reader and the gates open quickly enough. The system in Helsinki wouldn’t be fast enough, but then again we don’t have real gates and the passenger numbers are so small that having a slow system maybe doesn’t slow everything down too much. Given that Seoul had this kind of a system over 10 years ago (and it was just as fast back then), we probably got the lowest bidder giving us crappy technology in Helsinki. (To be honest, I’ve seen part of the specs for the new travel card system they are planning for in Helsinki, and it seems to be more the case of the Regional Transport Authority not actually requiring the system to be fast, so it’s not really a fault of the provider.) But by far the niftiest feature of the three is the ability to have your travel billed on your credit card, like it happens in Seoul. No need to go somewhere to load money on the card. Clipper Card can be loaded over the net (but not instantaneously) so that’s sort of a compromise, but I just wish that in Helsinki we could get the thing as in Seoul.

Related to traffic, parking garages also work surprisingly differently, given that the functionality is pretty simple. In Finland, as in most of Europe in my experience, you get a ticket from a machine when you enter a parking garage, you pay for the parking at a machine before you leave, and you enter the “paid” ticket at the exit gate. The key bit here is that everything is automated and no human contact is needed, unless there are problems. In the US and Seoul, you very commonly need to interact with a human during payment. In the US, you either get the ticket at the entry gate and pay to a human when exiting, or you pay a flat rate to a human upon entry (common in a bit more touristic areas). Yes, there are some garages that work like in Europe. Both US and Europe still make you carry around that small piece of paper, though. In Seoul a very common solution seemed to be that a camera takes a photo of the license plate of the car and another camera at exit takes another photo and then a computer tells the human in the booth how much you should pay. Yes, this needs a human at the exit (or some kind of an automated payment system like for highway tolls) but removes the need for carrying around that piece of paper. Korea has such an automated highway toll payment system, but I didn’t see any parking garage taking advantage of that. One place where this Korean system showed a huge advantage was on SNU campus, where visitors needed to pay to enter with a car, but registered users could drive on a different lane and not be stuck behind the visitors. For those with their tinfoil hats (too) tightly on their heads, yes, I see the obvious privacy implications of keeping track of cars via computers, but if the data is actually deleted when exiting the garage, then I think the good outweighs the bad. (No, I don’t know for sure what happens to the data, but the cynic in me doesn’t believe that it gets deleted, so the privacy concerns are probably valid.) Overall, all three are pretty much the same, with Europe having gone furthest in eliminating need for humans in the process.
However, Korea does use technology in some other areas way more than US or Europe. These are best shown with pictures.

If you go to a Starbucks (or any of the local Korean coffee shop chains or similar places), after ordering you’ll most likely get a large, plastic thingy, like in the photo below.

Technology

When your “whatever you ordered” is done, the device will blink (but not beep :)) to signal that you can go pick up your stuff. No need for hanging around the “Pick up order here” counter, no need for the people making the food to yell “Item X for person Foo is ready”. Just relax, sit down, wait for blinking, and go get your thingy when it’s done. I don’t remember seeing these kinds of things in Europe, then again, places like Starbucks work at a very un-European principle, and are only recently taking hold. The European way is to have a real waiter ask for your order after you sit down. The Finnish way is to do everything by self-service. πŸ™‚

I have seen similar things used in the US, but only when you are waiting for your table at a restaurant. You go to a popular restaurant, you didn’t make reservations, the place is full, and you need to wait N minutes, where N is typically quite large. Instead of waiting right there, the restaurant gives you a thingy like above and when your table is ready, it’ll blink (and maybe beep). It obviously works only in cases where you have another place to go nearby while waiting, such as shopping or a bar.

While the above thing is nice and nifty, the next one is even better. Here’s the picture:

Technology

These are extremely common in Korean restaurants. Instead of needing to flag down a waiter, there is this kind of a small thingy at the table, you press the button, and soon after a waiter “magically” appears next to your table. The thingy in the picture has three buttons. The one at the bottom left is “soju”, the one at bottom right is “beer”, and the one at top is “Other request”. Yes, this was in a restaurant with separate rooms, so having a dedicated button for the most common things is an obvious optimization. In more open seating areas, there would be only 1 button.

In Finland I’ve seen similar arrangements in restaurants with separate rooms, but in Korea you can find these in most restaurants. I did see such a thingy in a Nepalese restaurant in downtown Helsinki on my last visit and this was not in a separate room. I’ve never seen them in the US. I can imagine them not fitting at all with the local style here, since there are enough people with a feel of entitlement that they would time the reaction times of waiters and complain if they exceeded X seconds (where X would now be rather small).

Finally, we come to home appliances. Microwaves? The same in all countries. (Not a surprise since especially some of the microwaves sold in Finland are made in Korea.) Fridges? Pretty much the same in my experience. There are differences in fancy features, but those seem to be more between low-end and high-end models and not between countries. Dishwashers? Well, this is more interesting… In Seoul we didn’t have a dishwasher, but of course the In-Laws have one. I don’t quite remember how much noise it makes, but I don’t recall being overly disturbed by it, so it’s probably about the same as our cheap Siemens dishwasher in Finland. The dishwasher in our current apartment here in Berkeley? The owner had just remodeled the kitchen, the dishwasher is brand new, and the manual was in the drawer. When I read through the manual, I couldn’t help but notice how it vaunted the quietness of the dishwasher. B……t! The damn thing is louder than our cheap Siemens dishwasher back home in Finland. Way louder, as in being in the kitchen at the same time as the damn thing is running is uncomfortable… If this is truly a quiet model, then I can only feel sorry for the people here.

Washing machines… don’t even get me started on those… Compared to Korea, Finland is behind in one respect. The fanciness of features is about the same (with many washing machines sold in Finland being manufactured in Korea…) but the sizes are different. Typically in Finland a washing machine has been for 5 kg, maybe 7 kg for a “big” washer, but in Korea, no manufacturer dares to sell anything with capacity less than 10 kg. Oh, and a Korean washing machine will play music when it has finished (although I’m not sure if this should be counted as a positive thing). Other than that, they are pretty much equal and light years ahead of the US. Here you get a big, bulky top-loading monster, which you need to stop and open to add detergent, start again, let it run, stop, open, put in clothes, start again, let it run, stop, open, add fabric softener (in some cases), basically a major pain. None of the nice automation of load clothes, load detergent and softener, program the washing cycle with whatever options you want, press start, and wait. No, this thing is a giant leap back towards the stone age. And you’re telling me that these guys went to the moon… Well, the washing machine technology currently in use here in the US is from the same era as the moon landings, so…

Admittedly, besides our current washing machine, I’ve only experienced US washing machines in laundromats, but they all fit the above description. I’ve also used a fair amount of French and German laundromats and they fit the description of automation above, so I don’t hold much hope for US in this regard. (Yes, I’m aware that front-loading washing machines exist here, but if you need arguments like this to convince people to buy them, I’m still not holding much hope for these guys.)

Yes, as is customary here in the US, there is a dryer right next to the washing machine. Yes, it is nice to get clothes dried without having to hang them up to dry. Yes, we’re going to buy a dryer when we get back to Finland, in fact, pretty much the only reason why we don’t have one yet is that the top of the washing machine made for an ideal changing table for babies. It’s solid, it’s stable, it’s sturdy, and with a waterproof padded cushion, it was ideal for the job. Now that the Younger One is out of diapers (well, has been for a while), the need for a changing table has disappeared and the top of the washing machine can now be used for a dryer. πŸ™‚

Another water-related weakness in the US are the showers. A friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to this story about a guy taking a shower wearing his Google Glass and commented that maybe the Americans should first fix their showers and only then move on to developing more advanced technology. I cannot but wholeheartedly agree. Seriously, what’s the fascination with the “shower head attached to the wall” thing? Not to mention the myriad controls for hot and cold water or water pressure. Every time I travel to the US, it always is a pain to figure out how the shower works. Every other country I’ve visited has pretty much an intuitive, almost standardized system. Get on with the program!

So, why is it that the US is, IMHO, among the last of the industrialized countries in the actual adoption of technology? Don’t get me wrong, these guys here do develop a lot of stuff (especially high-tech stuff), but it’s usually the other countries where the stuff is actually used to make life easier. To be honest, I can’t think of a single thing where US could be considered to be at the forefront of technology use in everyday life. (Yes, I probably have missed something painfully obvious, feel free to post a comment.)

I can think of a few reasons why that is so. One is that the US is a really big country. This is obviously an advantage in that it creates a vast, single national market, but at the same time creates a large inertia for changing things. Europe, in contrast and notwithstanding any “progress” towards a single market by the EU, is fragmented, which creates many small markets, but as a positive feature, allows each of them to develop individually, e.g., Finland can adopt technology X, regardless of what the Spanish do. The inertia is that in every country there are certain cultural expectations on how things should work, and changing these expectations takes time. With a large population, it takes longer, unless an authoritarian approach enforces the migration (obviously a non-starter as a solution in the US and in Europe as well).

Yet another reason could be the first-mover disadvantage. Wait, disadvantage? Isn’t it usually called first-mover advantage? Well, yes it is, but it’s sort of a double-edged sword. Being the first to adopt or build something new gives you a short-term, maybe even a medium-term advantage over those not doing it. However, especially in technology, things evolve at a rapid pace and those who waited will have access to superior solutions at lower cost, whereas the first-mover has to invest again. A classic example of this is buying let’s say a computer. You set aside a certain amount of money for buying a computer. Do you buy one now or wait 6 months and get a better computer for the same price? Buy now and miss out on all the new stuff that comes out in those 6 months, but get to use a computer now, or wait, without a computer and get more for your money? What is the value of having a computer now? (Yes, you need to assign a value to “having a computer” since otherwise you’d just wait, since waiting gives you more bang for the buck.)

Likewise in society, do we build a large infrastructure with current technology or wait for better technology to emerge? I leave pondering of the answer as an exercise for the reader.

Posted in California, Korea, Technology | 4 Comments

Is Food Expensive in Finland?

Everyone (in Finland) “knows” that food in Finland is by far the most expensive in the world, because of “whatever the imagined reason du jour happens to be”. Hmmm… an astute reader might detect a hint of sarcasm in that previous sentence. Do I perchance seek to imply that food in Finland is cheap? What blasphemy! I hope I won’t lose my Finnish passport after writing such heresy…

So, instead of just claiming random thoughts on a blog to be The Scientific Truthβ„’, I offer some actual data to support my position. Not that such a thing would be required; having a blog gives you the right to say anything and expect others to take it as gospel. Or at least so it seems to work on the Internet…

Back in 2007, when we moved from Germany to Finland, our food expenses per month went up by about 10-15%. Yes, I was actually keeping a close track for several months both before and after, so this is not just a gut feeling but real data. The comparison is a bit sketchy since 2 months after we moved, we were 3 people instead of 2, but the newest addition wasn’t contributing much to the food bill, so we can consider the effect to be negligible. (Yes, I did separate baby expenses from food, so the 10-15% difference is just on food and other everyday stuff for two adults.) Funnily enough, the difference in Value Added Tax on food between Finland and Germany was about 10%, i.e., VAT on food in Finland was 10% higher. And our actual food expenses were about 10% higher. Gee, where might that 10% come from? Obviously, it must be because Finland is so far away and is so large that transport costs are horrendous, and us having an effective duopoly in the retail market keeps prices artificially high. Or maybe not.

Then again, in Germany we did not shop in the cheapest stores (Aldi or Lidl), but neither are we doing that in Finland. I’m fully aware that this single data point neither proves not disproves anything, but I have read similar comments in Finnish press that taking the VAT out of food prices puts Finnish food prices on a similar level to most of Europe. Obviously this observation is at odds with the traditional view of Finland being expensive. (For the record, I’m not saying the current duopoly in Finland is ideal in any sense of the word, but 2 is better than 1 and the situation isn’t really as bad as some would like you to believe. In fact, most countries seem to have only a small number of big retail chains, so we’re not all that different.)

Well, all nice and fine, but we haven’t been in Europe this year, so what about Korea and California? In Korea, we did our shopping mainly in two small supermarkets and did not go into the very big supermarkets (since they were far and we didn’t have a car). Bottom line? We paid more for food than in Finland and not by an insignificant amount, even though we were mainly cooking Korean food at home. Beef was pretty much off the menu since it was way, way more expensive than in Finland, but chicken and pork were about the same or cheaper. Fruits and vegetables were definitely not cheaper, at least not overall, and anything even remotely Western (e.g., pasta) was clearly more expensive. The only cheap thing was soju; even beer was more expensive than in Finland… And soju, well it’s 20% alcohol, comes in a bottle of 375 ml (or so) and costs 1150 KRW, i.e., less than one Euro.

Coming to California, we’re lucky to have an excellent supermarket within walking distance from our home. This market is called Berkeley Bowl and it has an excellent reputation, completely deserved. Especially the fruit and vegetable section is magnificent, but when it comes to other stuff, the selection is good, but not spectacular (compared to what I’m used to in Finland). Price-wise we’re ahead here, since overall food seems to be cheaper than in Finland, but, again, it depends on what you buy. Meat is about the same or a bit more expensive and fish is way more expensive, in Berkeley Bowl at least; we also go shopping in a Korean supermarket and there fresh fish is about Finnish prices. Fruits and vegetables, however, seem to be definitely cheaper, and even buying organic produce, you’re about at the same prices as for non-organic in Finland. And they have a nice selection of beers…

When it comes to restaurants, Korea is the winner, at least in terms of price. You can easily find good restaurant meals for well under 10 EUR, something not feasible in Finland where even a university cafeteria hits you for 5 EUR (this being a public blog, I refrain from commenting on the quality of said cafeteria food, or whether it should even be classified as food). Sure, you can find expensive restaurants in Seoul, but in general eating out is pretty affordable (although getting a good deal might require knowledge of Korean). In California, the prices are closer to the Finnish level, actually almost at the same level in many cases, but the variety of options is much better. Not to say Helsinki doesn’t have its fair share of international cuisine, but it doesn’t come even close to Berkeley. Eating out in Helsinki is typically the most expensive of these three places. Quality-wise, I can’t really make any general statements. Each of these three places has their share of good and bad restaurants and the only universal truth is that a good restaurant serves good food, and a bad restaurant serves bad food.

So, is food expensive in Finland? Sure, but is it considerably more expensive than elsewhere? (Elsewhere here meaning the other countries where I’ve lived.) Not really, I’d say, but this is obviously a topic that will remain in active discussion for a long, long time. The sad part is that most of the discussion is FUD, based on anecdotes like “the peaches we bought on our holiday in France were really cheap” (sure, but did you check the price of, say bananas? prices actually vary on that level of granularity, trust me, I have checked), or others driving their own agendas. The only way you can actually compare these, is to live for a longer time in a foreign country, keep track of your expenses, and do the math. There’s a further catch that it obviously matters what kind of food you buy, as in insisting on a typical Finnish diet in Korea will be expensive, as will be the converse. However, it’s a starting point, so just go out there and form your own opinion. And don’t be afraid to try the local delicacies… πŸ™‚

 

Posted in California, Korea, Miscellaneous | 5 Comments

Banking

When you are a customer of a non-Finnish bank, you very quickly come to appreciate how well the whole banking system works in Finland. No, I don’t claim it’s without any problems Finland, but trust me, from the point of view of getting your everyday banking done, it could be much, much worse.

In addition to Finland, I’ve had bank accounts in France, Germany, USA, and Korea, so I’m not a complete stranger to foreign ways of handling money. Sure, when you actually need to go to a bank branch to take care of something, the experience is relatively similar, i.e., you wait in line and then get serviced (or “serviced”, as the case may be). It’s the part when you don’t need to go to a branch where Finland is way, way ahead of the others (except maybe Korea, where we’re maybe just a little bit ahead).

When the Euro was introduced and European banks started to make their systems interoperate better, I remember reading in a newspaper that for Finnish banks this would mean going back 15-20 years in time. That really wasn’t very far from the truth, based on my experience in France and Germany, although recently bank transfers within Europe have become easier.

Although one time I had a funny experience in a bank branch. This was back in 1996 when I was doing an internship in Lyon, France, and I had received an advance of my first salary (about 1000 EUR) and wanted to open a bank account. Although I spoke French, my boss sent a French intern to come with me. The guy in the bank says: “Oh, you want to open an account? You need to have an appointment, the next appointment is a week from now.” I had heard that opening a bank account in France was tricky for foreigners, so when the French intern simply resigned to this fate, I figured that was it. When my boss heard about it, he blew a gasket, called the bank, threatening to move the company’s business away from that bank, and suddenly I had an appointment for the following morning. (Not sure how effective the threat was, since although the company was Electricite de France, the French national electricity provider, i.e., a very big company, he was only a section head, so he probably wouldn’t have been able to carry out his threat.)

About the banks in US, it suffices to say that these guys still use checks as a part of their everyday life. I vaguely remember seeing my parents use checks back in Finland about 30 years ago, but those things belong in the past (unless you happen to have an archaic banking system… not naming any countries, but the list is longer than just 1 country). There is one nice(?) feature at my bank here in California, in that I can have receipts for my ATM withdrawals go to my email instead of cluttering my wallet or pockets. I’m not sure if I want to actually save them, but at least the option is there.

Bank transfers in the US seem to be considered a creation of the devil, since nobody seems to use them. Sure, checks cover many of the features of a working bank transfer system, but a transfer is just so much more convenient in every conceivable way. Paying for rent, school photos, etc., is all done by checks and when I asked my landlord how he would prefer to get the rent deposit, it ended up being done over Western Union. I did mention the possibility of doing a bank transfer from Finland, but he never reacted to that option. πŸ™‚ Back in 2000 or so, when I was working as a summer intern in the US, I got my salary as a check, however there was the option of getting it directly on my bank account. I took that option, but many people reacted with a “are you sure you want to do that?”. Maybe things have changed in the last 10 years, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

In Korea the system is about at the level of Finland. One interesting feature is the ability to get your bank to send you a text message every time you use your debit card. It felt a bit weird to pay for something and then have your phone beep/vibrate about 5-10 seconds later, but I got used to it and it actually got pretty annoying in the end. Given the annoyance factor, this arrangement brings up the question of why such a system has been implemented in the first place? If it’s my card, wouldn’t I know that I have just bought such and such? (It only tells you the amount and name of merchant.) I can only think of it as a fraud protection system and such an annoying system would seem to imply that there is a lot of fraud; however, I don’t have any data, so that is just a wild guess. I know that the system has been around for 10 years or more, so maybe it was just originally implemented as “hey look at this cool extra service we can provide with mobile phones” and nobody has given it any serious thought. It wouldn’t be the first nor the last time…

About the only thing the Koreans don’t seem to have when compared to Finland, is the reference number for a bank transfer. This lets the recipient check automatically who has paid and who has not, avoiding the need of manually checking from deposit books for my last month’s electricity payment, as happened with the guesthouse manager in Seoul. (Then again, for her it seemed like business-as-usual, so I guess that’s how it happens.) Truth to be told, the gas company bill in Seoul had a bunch of numbers on it, but it had to be fed through an optical reader, so I don’t know what exactly happened to those numbers. The standard ATM bank transfer interface in English didn’t let me enter anything but account number and amount. The Korean interface allowed me to save recipient lists, but didn’t allow entering these kinds of reference numbers.

Other than that, the world of banking has developed in the last 20 years that I’ve been using it in different countries. I can even log into my banks web service in Finland and do a transfer to my account in the US. And it works and the money is here in less than a week and the commission is very reasonable.

Posted in California, Kids, Miscellaneous | 1 Comment

Mobile Phones in the USA

Here comes the obvious sequel to my stories about mobile phones in Korea.

Well, we came to California and as I suspected earlier, things did not improve. From my business trips to the US over the past couple of years, I had learned that my European iPhone would normally roam in one of two networks: “Searching…” and “No Service”. Occasionally it might find AT&T or T-Mobile, but the first two seemed to have by far the best coverage in urban areas; I haven’t been outside of bigger cities, so I don’t know how well they cover rural areas. I have to say I was somewhat surprised that neither “Searching…” nor “No Service” has any shops, nor even a website where you could order SIM cards for your phone, so I was stuck with choosing between AT&T and T-Mobile. (There is also Sprint and Verizon, but their networks are CDMA based and our European phones don’t work there.)

Actually, this is not even a choice since when I walked into an AT&T shop, they flat out told me that they don’t support data on my iPhone and the guy actually recommended I go to T-Mobile. (Turns out this is not strictly speaking correct, but if these instructions are correct on how to get a European iPhone to get data on AT&T, then for all practical purposes you have only T-Mobile as your choice.)

Contrary to what you might read on the Internet, you can actually get 3G speeds on T-Mobile, but this is pre-conditioned on you actually finding a spot where they have a 3G base station. How on Earth is it possible that in 2013 a supposedly large operator in a supposedly one of the ten largest US metropolitan areas does not have full 3G coverage? Wait, it gets better! There are areas, such as our home, where even any kind of coverage is iffy, i.e., my phone does not get reception and I cannot call, send text messages, or use data? It simply boggles the mind. I’ve used a mobile phone since 1996 and have never, ever, ever had coverage this bad. No self-respecting operator in Europe would dare to attempt to sell this kind of service. (Then again, when you take a bull to a cow, it’s also called “service”…)

This is the part where Americans usually retort with a “but you Europeans don’t have any idea of just how big the US is”. Spare me, please. It is true that the distance from London to Athens is only a bit longer than New York to Miami, or that Helsinki and Lisbon are a fair bit closer to each other than New York and San Francisco, and the claim is that it is not economically feasible to cover all the points in-between with perfect coverage. That may indeed be so, but would not a large metropolitan area with well over 5 million inhabitants be something you could cover? In other words, you might not get all the points between London and Athens, but you could manage, somehow, possibly, maybe, London and Athens? Looks like it’s too difficult…

Oh, and I forgot about the price. 50 USD per month per phone, although it includes an unlimited amount of calling and texting and an unlimited amount of data, however you only get a small amount of data at 3G speeds (100 MB/month), the rest drops to EDGE, but the amount is unlimited or so they said; then again, even going 24/7 at EDGE speeds is not going to be much data, so they might actually mean “unlimited” when they say “unlimited” (I didn’t check for fine print, I admit). Yes, there are a bit cheaper deals available, but we were after instant gratification as opposed to waiting an undetermined amount of time for a SIM card to arrive in mail, so looks like we’re stuck with this. For my needs (a few calls and some data) the price is outrageous, but similar pre-paid plans in Finland or Europe would probably cost the same or more, so my complaint here is more about the perceived need to offer “unlimited minutes”.

Yes, I’m fully aware that the main part of the problem is “European” iPhone since US mobile phone networks were traditionally based on CDMA as opposed to GSM which was used in pretty much all of the rest of the world (with a few exceptions, like Korea :)). If the coverage maps I see on the net are anything to go by, then any other network except T-Mobile would be significantly better in this area, but if you can’t get a data connection on your smartphone, it sort of becomes useless. Yes, for the record, I’ve checked what kind of 3G speeds I get and I can get the usual 4-5 Mbps downloads if I happen to be covered by a 3G base station, so all the problems really relate to poor coverage and not problems in technology on my side.

However, in order to be honest, they also allow tethering and gave me an extra 400 MB at 3G speed on top of my usual 100 MB/month, so things could be a lot worse (except the coverage, of course…)

Only 131 days (plus change) to go until my return to civilization. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that since I commute with public transport and use my iPhone as a navigation device in rental cars, it would be nice if it worked better. But more on those later.

 

Posted in California, Technology | Leave a comment

Mobile Phones in Korea, Addendum

One small addendum to my Korean experience is that the supposed automatic recharging of my prepaid data plan with KT didn’t quite work as expected. Sure, it recharged itself twice during last fall, but in December it didn’t do it automatically. Because of the eye surgery, I didn’t really need the phone, so it wasn’t until mid-January that I did something about it. At the KT office the person was very confused and said that it shouldn’t have even worked at all (but it worked twice, October and December), and maybe the problem was that I used a debit card instead of a credit card. Then I took out my Korean credit card, they charged it and it was supposed to work. Come February and the date for the automatic recharge and my phone was again without a data connection, so it didn’t work. This was so close to my departure that I didn’t bother doing anything about it. Bottom line is, sensibly priced prepaid mobile data might not exist with KT after all, or if it does, you need to drop by their office every month to re-activate it.

Posted in Korea, Technology | Leave a comment

First Days of School

This week has been the first week in school for The Daughter. Sure, she’s been in day care or kindergarten in Finland and Korea, but given how the system here in California works, she’s now for the first time officially enrolled in the main educational system of a country/state. This week was the first day of school (which is here called kindergarten; the terminology is very different from what you’d expect if you translated the Finnish terms directly into English, pretty much a complete opposite, in fact).

But I digress. So, last Wednesday was the first day in school. This was in fact the second time I had to leave The Daughter alone in “school”, first one having been in Finland 3.5 years ago when she started in day care. (In case you’re wondering, it was The Better Half who took care of the first day in kindergarten in Seoul, so that’s why I’ve only done this twice. All in all, she’s gone through it three times, with increasing difficulty as it comes to the language.) Let me tell you, it doesn’t get any easier over time, of course this time being complicated with a completely new and mostly unfamiliar language and starting in the middle of the year.

“Mostly unfamiliar” in the previous sentence is of course subject to interpretation, since at home The Better Half and I talk with each other in English, but we use Finnish and Korean to talk to the kids (me Finnish, she Korean; remember what happens when I try to use Korean?), so the Kids are exposed to English. They also sometimes watch TV programs or movies in English, so it’s not like they’ve never been exposed to it. And yes, they have both demonstrated understanding it in some contexts, such as me asking The Better Half in English where The Daughters gloves are and she (the little one) runs to get them. She did get an official language test before school to determine her level, and apart from copying letters which she did well, she was definitely at a beginner level. So that shattered our illusions about her language skills. πŸ™‚

So, with some amount of trepidation, we went off on Wednesday morning, which happened to be a foggy morning (not unusual around here). Somehow I felt that it was somehow appropriate, thinking of a metaphor of “walking into the unknown, not seeing where to go, not knowing what you will find”, which in a sense does capture the essence of learning (and life, when you think of it). Anyway, we got to our school, Malcolm X Elementary School, which is within easy walking distance from our home. We had already registered the day before, so it was just a matter of going to the right class room and meeting her teacher.

The teacher seemed very nice, the other kids were very excited to have a new kid in the class, and they were very eager to interact with her. I stayed for a while to see how it went, but everything seemed to go smoothly and as soon as they started their actual activities, I sad goodbye and went off to work. She stayed without too much protest (obviously a little bit), but no tears were shed. I guess the best way to summarize the experience was that after the day, when we picked her up from school, she said she wanted to come again the next day.

Everyone we’ve talked with (admittedly only school staff and parents of other kids) have said that the school is very good and based on our experience of a whopping 3 days, I think it looks good. Then again, the thing we mostly want out of this experience is for her to learn English and for that it’s probably enough to be immersed in an English-speaking environment. The structure is much more teaching-oriented than the equivalent level in Finland, and the local kids already know how to read (at least some), do basic math, etc., so in that sense, she’s definitely behind the other kids. Yes, school starts one year later in Finland, but 5-year-olds spend most of their time playing. Even the official pre-school year in Finland seems to be less learning/teaching-oriented than here (or Korea). Anyone working in education is of course familiar with Finland scoring high on the international tests and this question of “is it better to start formal teaching later?” always comes up. All I can say is that I don’t know (and that all the different ways seem to produce healthy, balanced adults for the most part, so maybe it actually doesn’t matter in the end).

So far the teacher has told that Our Daughter has done very well in school. I try to remove the usual US “everything is so great” attitude from that, but it’s hard to know just exactly how well things are going. The Daughter is showing progress in English (even after only 3 days) and seems to be making friends in school, so I’m optimistic, with a healthy dose of skepticism thrown in. I do have to keep in mind that she’s now working on her third language and she’s not even 6 years old. I don’t think I even knew a single word in any other language than Finnish at her age, and she’s already fluent in two (“fluent” as in what you would expect from a 5.5-year-old). After our year abroad, she will have spent over 20% of her life outside of Finland. Me? First trip abroad happened when I was 8 years old and that was one day in Stockholm. The world has indeed changed a lot.

 

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Coming to America

The Pacific Ocean is safely behind us and we’ve arrived in California. We flew in last week and tomorrow will mark the first week of us being here. So far things are going well, we’ve found a place to live and are in the process of settling in. Even though the place is furnished, there is still a fair amount of shopping that needs to be done. And of course new things to get used to. But more on that later.

The last few weeks in Seoul were pretty hectic with packing everything, cleaning, meeting friends and relatives, etc. Funny how many of the meetings were crammed in the last few weeks (days, to be honest) even though we were there for 6 months. Then again, in the beginning it didn’t feel urgent since “we still have plenty of time”, but 6 months is actually quite a short time. Now we have 5 months of California ahead of us and I can already tell that it will feel short.

I’ve lived in the USA for a total of 1 year, although spread into three stays of 3, 3, and 6 months, but the Better Half has been only here as a tourist for 1 week (and that was New York and Washington DC), and the Kids had not yet set foot on this continent. The two 3-month stays for me were in the Bay Area, but they were both around Palo Alto, whereas we’re now living in Berkeley, which is a fair distance away. The good thing is that most of the stuff is familiar to me so in a certain way, things are relatively easy since I know how things work and where to get stuff (maybe not the best price, but at least I’ll find it).

Getting here turned out to be an extremely painless operation. I had been worried about our visas, since we were applying in Seoul and I know from my own foreign students in Finland that getting US visas for conferences is a major ordeal. Well, cue in a Finnish passport (actually 3 Finnish and 1 Korean passport), J1-related paperwork from UC Berkeley, and it took a grand total of 48 hours from our visa interview to the time we had the passports and visas back in our hands. This pretty much matches my experience with getting US visas on my previous stays, so my worries were completely unfounded.

We managed to get on a direct flight from Seoul to San Francisco, which obviously was very nice. I had promised the Kids that they can watch as much TV as they want on the plane, but then it turned out that the video system on our seats (and a couple of seats around us) was having problems. The flight attendants kept on rebooting the system until it eventually worked, but by that time both kids were soundly sleeping. πŸ™‚ In the end, they didn’t mind and didn’t complain about it, so no harm done.

On arrival into SFO, we were met with an insanely long line at immigration. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve seen a line that long on any of my visits to the USA. We were on the line for close to 1 hour and were still about 20-30 minutes away from being processed, when “The Magic Priority Trick”, i.e., a child in a stroller, worked its magic. One officer was directing people with small kids to the US citizen line which had by now emptied. Further, we got into a line where the officer processing us was just about to go on his break, so he didn’t even ask a single question and just mechanically stamped all 4 of us in.

The next good news was that our bags were of course waiting for us, all 8 of them. 4 of them 30 kg, 4 of them about 20. (Yes, that in theory means a pretty hefty overweight fee, but the checkin agent in Seoul had done us a favor by charging only half of what we should have paid; very much appreciated. :)) So, since there were a bunch of porters hanging around the baggage belt, I asked one of them to give us a hand. After collecting all of our worldly belongings, we made it through customs with no questions asked. Then, a shuttle to our hotel where we stayed a few nights, and on Sunday we finally moved into our new home in Berkeley.

So, that’s it for now. All is going well, but the next challenge in finding schools for Kids. The older one is eligible for a kindergarten in a public school and tomorrow we’re going to register her for that. The younger one will need some other kind of day care and that is still an unsolved mystery…

Posted in Bureaucracy, California, Preparation, Traveling | Leave a comment

Learning Korean

Aargh! I actually wanted to start this posting with a more friendly “μ•ˆλ…•ν•˜μ„Έμš””, i.e., “hello” in Korean, but in retrospect, “aargh” captures the situation better. I’ve just come from the final exam of my language class and my head feels like exploding. This post is not intended to be any kind of a tutorial or guide to learning Korean. It’s just me venting to prevent my head from exploding. πŸ™‚

First a disclaimer to say that I’m actually quite happy with the course and have learned a lot. I should have studied harder.

I’ve been learning Korean here during my stay at the SNU Language Education Institute, in their evening classes. This has meant that almost every Monday and Thursday, I’ve gone to class from 18:30 to 21:20, i.e., three hours twice a week (excepting a short holiday in November and mandatory rest after my operation). For someone who recently is more used to inflicting studying upon others, this has been a good experience.

I was not a complete beginner in September, since I had taken my first steps in learning Korean over 10 years ago and had already taken a 3-week course at Ewha University several years ago. Then there’s the huge benefit of being exposed to Korean every day at home (more on this later), which definitely has helped, but since I don’t use Korean at home, I’m limited to trying to follow the kids. With our Daughter, I noticed the my Korean skills were somewhere between a 2-year-old and 3-year-old child, i.e., when she was 2, I could understand pretty much everything she said and when she was 3, I was mostly lost, except for simple expressions. With the Younger One, who’s right now going from 2 to 3, I’ve done better since my exposure to Korean here in Seoul has allowed me to stay at, or even a bit above his level. I might have a chance to keep up with him for maybe another 6 months, but I’m not expecting anything beyond that.

Before I delve into my personal experiences in learning Korean, one thing to note is that the US State Department classifies Korean among the 5 most difficult languages in the world (along with Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese). Finnish is in the second most difficult category. Obviously this relates to the difficulty for a native English speaker and a large part of the difficult lies in the whole structure of the language being completely different.

But, first some good news. Korean is written with a phonetic alphabet, and even though letters are grouped into syllables, there are only a little bit over 30 letters, meaning that it’s pretty easy to get to a level where you can read things and pronounce them. Not necessarily “pronounce correctly”, since Korean has several sounds which are very similar to each other and at least Finnish doesn’t make enough of a difference between those kinds of sounds, making it somewhere between extremely hard and impossible for me to even hear, much less reproduce the different sounds.

Why does Korean have this kind of an alphabet? Well, King Sejong in the 14th century decided that learning Chinese characters was too difficult for normal people, so he designed a new writing system. That’s how the story goes; I’ve heard that the truth was more along the lines of a group of people designing the writing system, which I guess would make Korean a language designed by a committee… (To use an old joke here: What is a camel? A horse designed by a committee.) Still, I’m very grateful for this kind of a simple writing system since at least it gives you a fair chance to learn the language. (Yes, Chinese characters are still used and you can see them in newspapers and such, but I’m not yet at a level advanced enough to cover those, so as far as I’m concerned, they don’t exist.)

Then the bad news. Our teacher called Korean a lego-language, because most of the grammar revolves around putting different endings to words to express different kinds of things. The nice thing about this is that you can apply different grammatical patterns without understanding the main words (been there, done that), but the nasty thing is that there’s a ton of endings to remember. Then again, western languages achieve the same by using different words and combining them, so what’s the difference?

(You may ask why I’m complaining, after all Finnish works roughly the same way, by adding endings. The answer is simple. I didn’t have to learn Finnish as a foreign language, but picked it up using the natural method. I’ve only learned Indo-European languages and I don’t have a mental model for how to learn this kind of a language as an adult.)

The difference is that Korean seems to have way more gradations than any other language I know. For example, when expressing how certain you are about something, seems like Korean has a different ending for every 10% of added certainty. While the nerdy computer geek inside me appreciates this kind of possibility for precision and conveying an exact meaning, it’s very painful to learn. You need long-term exposure before actually comprehending the faint nuances between different endings (not really feasible in classroom). Also, there is very little pattern to the different endings and their meanings, or at least I haven’t seen enough of a pattern yet to help me learn them. In some situation I have seen logical patterns, but those have not been in the endings.

One nice thing about Korean is that even though you have this multitude of different endings, there is actually very little that you could consider “irregular”. Sure, there are verbs that are called irregular, but there aren’t that many of them and what is called “irregular” in Korean, would be called “group X verb” in, e.g., French. In other words, the “irregular” simply means that if a verb has a given letter as the last letter of its stem, it doesn’t behave as you’d expect, but follows a different pattern (but the pattern is consistent for all similar verbs). Some things are truly irregular, but so far I’ve only seen a few. Beats having to learn N pages of irregular German verbs.

You of course have a whole slew of different levels of politeness, but to a large extent, they follow a logical pattern. With strangers you use one form, with friends and family another, i.e., just like in French or German, but in Korean you need to also consider age, status, meaning that you have more than just informal and formal levels. This is an area where you can burn yourself badly, but so far I’m not aware of having seriously offended anyone (not saying I haven’t done so, just that if it has happened, people have been too polite to let me know about it). We’ve learned the different levels in class, but little effort has been put into enforcing us to be consistent with them.

As I said, the geeky nerd inside me appreciates the possibilities offered by the Korean language and I’m quite certain that once you reach a sufficient level of fluency, all the nuances and tweak will allow you to convey your message very exactly, probably more exactly than in other languages I know (well, you can’t beat programming languages for exactness, though :-)) but I have no clue on how long it would take me to reach such a level. There is the official TOPIK language test for Korean, which has 6 levels. Currently I’m somewhere between levels 1 and 2, so the road is still long.

A few words about the course at SNU. Pretty much every larger Korean university offers a Korean language program and usually they have their own textbooks as well. I took the SNU evening class and our teachers (two per course, one on Mondays, another on Thursdays) have been between very good and excellent. I can’t complain about them. The books have been a bit of a disappointment, but then again I’ve looked through many books for learning Korean and have not yet come across anything that would look very good. Each chapter in the book has a few dialogues or short texts, which use some new grammar pattern (usually once per dialogue and maybe two patterns per dialogue). Then you practice the grammar and there are some listening and reading exercises. This makes the books pretty horrible for self-study, since the explanations about grammar and translations of words are so-so (some are actually wrong, but mostly they are ok).

In classroom use, this is fine, but the one problem I had with the books was that in every class, you get a bunch of new grammar patterns, but these usually do not re-occur in subsequent chapters. In other words, you don’t learn them so well since you only see them effectively once. I understood they are re-vamping the books so hopefully things will get better.

So, one final thing. How much has my constant exposure to Korean at home helped me in my studies? Well, in almost every class I get one of two revelations, either “so that’s how you spell that word!” or “so that’s the grammar pattern and meaning behind that expression!”. Sometimes I get the opposite revelation at home or when listening to people outside, i.e., “so that grammar pattern is actually actively used!”. I don’t plan on abandoning my efforts in learning Korean, but I need to figure out a good way to continue. Speaking it at home might work, but I get funny reactions from Kids when I try that. The Younger One in particular is quite funny. Whenever I say something in Korean, he lifts his hand, palm towards me and says: “Shhhh! Don’t speak!”. How’s that for encouragement? πŸ™‚

Posted in Korea, Miscellaneous | 3 Comments

Kids in Korea

I’ve had some questions on how the kids have adapted to life in Korea, so here are some observations and stories. No photos, though, not because I don’t have them, but because I don’t want to post them publicly on the Internet. You never know what’s going to happen 5 or 10 years from now to all the stuff you’ve posted. (Yes, that includes this blog as well, but I’ve tried to take care not to post anything that would later be embarrassing. :-))

So, how have the kids adapted? Pretty well, I’d say. Of course in terms of language they have already learned Korean at home in Finland (and the older one had been in Korean kindergarten for a few weeks a couple of years ago), so no real problems there. Both speak it fluently (for their age) and you can’t really tell them apart from native Korean kids here (or Finnish kids in Finland for that matter). We had been a bit worried about the Little Guy since back in Finland his Korean was a bit limited, but as soon as we arrived here, he started talking more and using words we didn’t know he knew.

Another funny aspect is the Older One’s intonation. See, in Finnish, the stress is always on the first syllable of the word. In Korean, there’s no similar clear stress, but you are more likely to emphasize the end of the word. The Better Half says that back in Finland, our Daughter would speak Korean with a Finnish accent, i.e., stressing the beginning, but after a while of being here, she lost it and spoke like a Korean. Interestingly, she then started to speak Finnish with a Korean intonation, i.e., emphasizing the end of the words. This sounded quite funny, but again after a while it went away and now she speaks both languages fully naturally.

The Daughter has been in the SNU kindergarten since September and she seems to like it; at least she doesn’t complain about having to go there. Sometimes she mentions the differences between Finnish and Korean kindergartens, but I’ve been unsuccessful in actually extracting pedagogical differences. For her, differences are for example that in Finland, food was brought into their room and there was a separate nap room; here in Korea, they go eat in cafeteria and take a nap in their normal room. I guess for a 5 year old who’s been used to one way, this is a meaningful difference. πŸ™‚

The good news is that neither has been complaining about wanting to go back to Finland. I guess they are still young enough that the only thing that matters is that mommy and daddy are with them. All in all, seems like they are enjoying it here. I’m quite curious to see how they will react to life in California. (Yes, everything is going well on that side and we’re moving end of February; I’ll write more about that later.)

I’ve noticed an interesting difference in terms of how people in general react to children. It seems to me that when you read Finnish travel brochures about different destinations, many of them mention that people in country X are really friendly towards children. The same is also true here in Korea and I’m starting to get the feeling that you could substitute any non-North European country for X in the previous saying. (I’m tempted to say any non-Finland country, but I think that would be unfair, since I don’t remember Sweden being much different from Finland.) What I mean by this are small things, like restaurants giving some small toys, getting cute pens from a bank (admittedly the branch was closing in a week), people in subway interacting with the kids, people on street commenting on how cute they are, etc. (Well, they are cute, what can I say? :-))

These kinds of things rarely happen in Finland and when they do, the other party is typically an immigrant from a “non-North European” country. Are we child-unfriendly in Finland? Certainly there are many child-friendly services, including free public transportation in Helsinki, but a small child wandering around in a restaurant and looking and waving at people is going to get more reactions here in Korea than in Finland. Obviously individuals react differently, but I have a feeling that the cultures also play a part. Which of the two is better? I leave answering that question as an exercise for the reader.

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Winter in Korea

See what I did there? I left the “South” out, for a very good reason, I might add. No, it’s not because commonly people only use Korea when referring to South Korea. It’s also not because I’m lumping the weathers of North and South Korea together; after all, they are on the same peninsula so this might be logical to assume. Nor have I defected to North Korea either. No, my dear readers, the reason is much simpler.

I want you to know that there is nothing “South” about the winter here. At least not in the sense of a Finn saying: “I’m going South for the winter”, nor in the sense of swallows migrating South for the winter. That’s European swallows, mind you; as we all well know, African swallows, despite their ability to carry a coconut, are non-migratory.

So, how does it compare against Finnish weather? It gets cold, not in the same extremes as in Finland, but we’ve been below -15C on several occasions and for the most of last 8 weeks, around 0 or below it. There’s also snow, although again not as much as in Finland. The locals have told me that this winter is colder than usual and there is less snow than usual, so normally it would be more pleasant. SNU campus and Nakseongdae area don’t have much wind, but one cold day I was near the Han river and the wind made it feel seriously cold.

Below are some photos of the snowing and snowy landscapes here. All in all a very nice winter, and after some reflection, I figured out why the winter felt so nice here.

Snowing on SNU

Winter SNU

Winter SNU

The one big, positive difference to Finnish winter is the amount of light. The shortest day in Seoul (on the solstice) is about 9 hours 30 minutes. In Helsinki, you get a day that long in late February. Now that I think about it, the winter in Finland is actually quite nice when you get to late February, since there is snow, lot of light, and temperatures usually are milder. Here, there is no depressing darkness that makes Finnish winter so difficult (for me at least). Sure, there are people in Finland who claim that they don’t mind, or even like the darkness, because it’s peaceful, calm, or whatnot. I have only one thing to say to you: “De Nile is not just a river in Egypt”. You need to get out more and try a bright winter. Sure, the brightness in Finnish summer is nice, but you lose a good chunk of it between 4 and 8 in the morning when you’re sleeping.

Although weather outside is cold, inside is quite warm. This is because Koreans have traditionally used floor heating (called ondol in Korean) and this still persists in most places. In the old days, you burned wood under the floor and warmed it up that way; in modern concrete buildings the floors have water pipes running in them and the hot water runs in the pipes. Basically it’s the same as the Finnish central heating system, but on the floor and not on a radiator on the wall below the window.

Overall, I quite like the heating system here, except for one little thing. This little thing relates to controlling how much heat you want. Sure, there are thermostats on the walls, but pretty much any place I’ve seen using ondol seems to have only two settings: off and well done. Those little cushions in restaurants where you sit on the floor? They are not to make the floor more comfortable to sit on. Their purpose is to prevent your ass from frying. Or at least, given the temperature of the floor, that is the most logical explanation for them.

Obviously, given all the health problems and issues, I haven’t been able to go outside much, nor do much, but this is definitely a kind of winter that I could enjoy. Kids also seem to like it and there has been enough snow for them to play in. Koreans are very proud that their country has 4 distinct seasons, much like Finland, and climate-wise I have to confess that I mostly enjoy it here, with the caveat that summer is a bit too hot and humid for me. Fall is excellent, winter is very nice, and spring I’ve never experienced, nor will I this time. I’ve heard spring is also very nice, so hopefully one day I will get to experience it as well.

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