Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Abandon Ship

The first thing you think about when the screech of the alarm first reaches you, is that 9.30pm on a Sunday evening is not a likely time to be running a drill. The automated spoken warning that it drowned out may have been meaningless to a non-Korean speaker, but there are times when no translation is necessary to understand the words "Fire. Evacuate. Fire. Evacuate."

There is only one way out of the apartment. And there is only one way out of the building. As you throw on your shoes, grabbing your baby and your dog as you do so, suddenly that one way out – down fifteen flights of stairs passing floors that may be alight – seems like a long and uncertain journey spurred on by the urgency of the alarms. On your journey, you might consider how quickly the blaze in the Haeundae 'Golden Suites' apartment block spread last year, and how as crime-ridden as living in a British house can be, at least you can always jump out of a window in an emergency and survive the fall.

Perhaps this is what comes of growing up in a country that, essentially, has never had a great belief in building upwards. But despite my lack of experience with tall buildings, I still believe I made the right choice in choosing the stairs for our escape, even if – on the evidence I saw – in a fire most Koreans will choose to wait for the elevator. So while a few people joined us on the stairs, it is the frantic movements of the elevator that forms one of my strongest lasting memories from that dark descent.

Korean Mother said she thought she could smell smoke, but I haven't learned to differentiate between that and the smell of Korean cooking. Come to think of it, it's remarkable that the thick haze that often accompanies her frying of large dead fish doesn't set off the smoke alarm in our apartment block.

Outside, a quick visual check of the apartment complex suggested nothing untoward, and we made our way to the janitor's office which had already become an impromptu refugee camp, and as it turned out, a pretty angry one at that.

You see, the reality of apartment block life in Korea seems to be this. There is a janitor's office, and a man sits in it who might be a janitor but he wears a uniform bearing a patch which reads "Security", and given the invariably high age of the wearer, one suspects this is actually short for "Social Security" to indicate their status as retirees. Our Sunday evening janitor didn’t look a day below the age of 70, and with thirty people in various states of agitation facing him, he certainly was aging fast, which he could ill-afford to do.

The problem was this. An alarm had triggered in an apartment that evidently was empty. Normally there is a building maintenance person to hand but tonight there wasn't, and there wouldn’t be until tomorrow morning. The janitor said everything was fine, though lacking any evidence for this it was clearly based on wishful thinking, and people should return to their homes, which they were unsurprisingly reluctant to do. They demanded he checked the apartment. He said he would do it the next morning when a maintenance person came. In Korea's Confucian society the stereotype of people having respect for their elders may be well-founded, but people were beginning to shout, and as it turned out one of the loudest was Korean Mother, which in its way was also unsurprising. In another time and a less patriarchal society, she would have been a fearsome tribal leader. Instead, she is merely fearsome.

The sound of a large diesel engine drew me outside and around a corner, to where a fire engine, lights flashing, had stopped. Firemen, wearing so little in the way of special clothing they had initially blended into the ranks of the evacuees outside, made their way into the janitor's office and then presumably to check the offending apartment. With competent professionals finally on hand, the incident rapidly faded into a non-event and fire or not, we drifted back to our apartment building.

An hour later, an announcement came over our apartment's speaker that the alarm had been caused by a non-fire related problem and the janitor/security guard, who was apparently a stand-in, hadn't known to just turn it off. He would be trained properly. Somehow, this explanation failed to inspire any confidence, because it seemed to beg more questions than it answered.

Many years ago I couldn't get an answer to a mathematics textbook problem unless I slightly altered the question, which I did on the assumption it was a misprint. My teacher wrote in bold angry red letters "Don't change the question to fit your answer!" Recently, in the early days of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, faced with rising levels of radioactivity they simply raised the level of radiation considered as 'safe'. I think if there’s something for the world to learn from Fukushima and the apparent history of cover-ups that preceded it, it is that for all the economic heights it has reached, Japan is often a country that likes to change its questions to fit its answers. And as my time here lengthens, I'm beginning to get a nasty feeling that Korea is exactly the same. So when one of the building's smoke alarm sensors are triggered, the official response is not to investigate the cause, but rather to know how to turn it off. How often is this happening while we sleep unaware in our homes?

The sense of a system that doesn't quite work was only heightened by a woman who said that she'd only heard about the evacuation when a friend outside the building phoned her to ask her why she wasn't outside. It was because the alarms didn’t go off at all on the 20th floor. It hadn't previously occurred to me that the alarms themselves might not work, even though, now I come to think of it, I believe that was one of the many complaints about the apartment building which burned in Haeundae. A sobering thought.

At 2.45am the alarms went off again, but this time they were so quiet I slept through it. In growing evidence of the supposition that people here like to change the question to fit their answers, apparently they'd turned the volume down on the alarms just in case they went off again. Who even knew they could do that? But this is the wrong way to solve the problem. My wife phoned the janitor's office where an evidently confused individual seemed to be struggling to know how to react. The quiet alarm finally ended and ten minutes later my wife phoned again to be told that everything 'seemed' OK. When you have only one way out of your apartment, and one way out of your building, it would be more comforting to think that the people who sat and watched over it could deal in greater certainty with greater competence.

The evening's events had raised another odd observation as well, which is why, of all the people that were outside having hastily evacuated the large apartment complex, was I the only person with a dog?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

One Hundred Mornings

In England we have special days we mark down in our calendars, and when the day is done we move on, perhaps returning to remember them as annual anniversaries. But when I came to live in Busan, I learned that Koreans are counters of days. So whether it be 100 days after your first date, 100 days after your wedding, 49 days after the death of a loved one, 15 days after Seollal, or some other date of note, people are busy counting them off on a calendar, or perhaps more probably now, their iPhone apps. Maybe it’s this mentality which brought us Hadan’s ‘Five days market’, which being every five days essentially ensures that you never know when to go.

Sometimes the counting isn't indefinite though, because when it comes to personal relationships - as my wife so profoundly told me - "once you get married you tend not to celebrate any more."

The 100th day after a baby is born is a significant event in Korea. If it were not for all the other counting of dates, it might be sadly indicative of the historically high rates of infant mortality here, but as it is, it merely seems another manifestation of the need to mark certain intervals on a calendar. Photos must be taken, and much like with Buddhist offerings, it seems necessary to involve a good amount of food. I'd been busy with work, but had developed a suspicion beforehand that my wife was planning a little more than this, given the number of baby-related Internet browsing and phone calls she seemed to be making. Packages started to arrive.

So it was that by the time the 100th day came, the wall of our lounge was improbably covered with a large printed cloth banner featuring our son's name and face along with the legend "Happy 100th Day", surrounded by the entire world's supply of purple balloons. Our son was wedged in a sitting position on the couch, and the table in front of him was filled with fruit and a cake - into which three numeric candles '1' '0' and '0' were placed.

The photos were taken, but in that respect this was merely a warm-up for the big event that was to come.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Pirates of Silicon Valley

A few weeks ago my computer started to switch itself off randomly. Given the construction quality of our apartment building, coupled with the dubious nature of the electrical system here, I wasn't sure at first what the cause was. But finally I concluded it was probably the power supply unit, and that I’d have to buy another to test out the theory.

I thought that meant another trip to the large computer store in Nampodong. In fact it's not really one store so much as a series of separate businesses clustered together on two floors of a building near the station, and it's a rarity, because for all Busan often feels like a city full of shops, places selling computers are – I think - relatively thin on the ground. When I first came here in 2006 I quickly explained it as being indicative of the high number of 'PC Bangs' where people can go and access the Internet, and allegedly people were also using their phones to surf the Net, an assertion that later I came to doubt because of the high data charges. But before I travelled to Nampodong, I remembered seeing what improbably looked like a small computer store near us and went to investigate, and I wasn't disappointed.

Many years ago I bought my first new computer in the anonymous basement of an industrial air compression company, which served as a metaphor for the underground nature of the home computing market at the time. It was rough, you had to be careful to avoid tripping over some discarded piece of technology on the floor, and it smelt of cheap chemicals heated dangerously above room temperature by questionably built power supplies. So perhaps that's why I took an immediate liking to my local computer shop, because nothing had changed, and 30 PC power supply units stacked on a shelf by the door said I was likely to be going home with what I came for.

Perhaps it's indicative of the nature of crime in Korea that my wife had to shout upstairs to where the proprietor seemed to be living several times to get his attention. So my polite refusal to follow my instincts and start physically investigating the contents on the shelves and floor around me seemed rather redundant under the circumstances. Many shops are like this in Korea and it never ceases to seem bizarre coming from a country where it’s almost second-nature to steal anything which isn't nailed down. In fact, many people dismiss the British Empire as mere colonialism, but it was really organised as more of a global heist - a sort of Ocean's 11,000,000 if you will.

When a computer starts losing power intermittently, you can’t guarantee that the power supply unit is the root cause of the fault. CPUs are designed to shut off when they overheat, motherboard issues can come into play, and even wiring could be to blame, so there was always going to be a backup plan. And there had to be; the computer ran my automated trading bots and they need to be running all the time. So my backup plan was buying a new PC.

Because I ended up doing a lot of research - with time I really don't have - for the prospective new machine, by the time I stood in the local computer store I was able to speak fluent PC jargon so well once again that my wife barely needed to translate my prospective shopping list with the proprietor. I might not speak Korean, and he not English, but both of us spoke jargon. But I'd also been searching around online, a more difficult task than it should be, due to the Korean propensity to use eBay-like (and eBay-owned) sites Auction and Gmarket to buy almost everything, whereas I prefer apparently proper online retailers like Hacker that have their own websites.

A few years ago when I was last looking to buy a PC here, I went into a computer store, and the owner said that if I bought a machine there he'd "load it with all the software". Which software? Anything I wanted. It's a constant source of incredulity here when I explain that I want to buy a copy of Windows, and over the last few years the numerous Windows XP Professional screensavers I've been witness to in shops have raised questions in my mind as to why so many people in Korea woul buy the more expensive copy of XP, when it’s completely unnecessary in a retail environment – the suspicion being that they didn't.

Koreans generally don’t seem to concern themselves with computer security but I do, which is why I never run pirated software on my systems. It's a relatively trivial matter to insert spyware in pirated software installers or even the software themselves. As a financial trader I need to be aggressive about network security. So when I told the owner of the newly found store that I wanted to buy a copy of Windows, and he said that he didn’t have any in stock, a look of surprise completely failed to cross my face. But perhaps it was because I wanted to buy Windows 7 Ultimate, a version of Windows so completely unnecessary for all but the narrowest of niches of customers, that even the salesman at Hacker laughed when my wife asked whether it could be bought with a system.

Unfortunately my inability to buy Windows from the local computer shop meant that I'd have to be ordering that from Hacker, so why not the entire PC at the same time? Sometimes it’s the little details of a PC build that can set things apart, and while Hacker’s choices weren’t always perfect, they'd chosen a case from Korean manufacturer Zalman that I liked due to its excellent ventilation. I doubted whether my increasingly specific requirements could be met locally, and more to the point dragging my very busy wife to the store again one or two times to run through my now highly detailed specification while my mother-in-law babysat didn’t seem the best use of anyone's time. And sadly that’s how I ended up buying from Hacker, again, rather than supporting my local economy.

Hacker claim that any system bought before 3pm will be delivered the next day, but having ordered ten minutes before that deadline I wasn't too hopeful. On the other hand, much to their surprise I needed no hard drive partitioning or Windows installation because I planned to do it myself, so that undoubtedly helped. It arrived at 12.50pm the next day. In the UK, we'd call that just short of six business hours later. And Hacker are located in Seoul.

By comparison, I went through a period a few years ago when I ordered so many machines from Dell that I ended up with my own account manager, but my gods does Dell drag their heels on delivery – a symptom of their highly-vaunted just-in-time 'customer fulfilment' procedures which one imagines involves sourcing parts from Taiwan after you order. By post. Dell doesn't seem quite sure why their stock price is half what it was five years ago but I have some ideas. Dell have a token Korean web site which actually seems to be run out of Singapore and nothing about it inspires any real confidence.

The rapid delivery from Hacker is not unusual in Korea, and it's an incredible testament to Korean customer service standards – at least at the point of ordering. Unfortunately it must also make it very hard to compete locally, and perhaps this is why there are so relatively few computer stores in Busan. If delivery times measured in hours means immediacy of purchase isn't an issue, one might suggest this also drives local retailers to find their own unique selling points, and while I never got into that conversation this time, loading computers with 'any software you want' probably counts as one of them.