Baseball is actually fun–for a change

I had almost written off Major League Baseball (MLB) this season.  Illegal use of performance-enhancing substances such as human growth hormone (HGH) and steroids sullied the game’s reputation, raising questions surrounding the legitimacy of Barry Bonds’ passing Babe Ruth on the All-time Home Run list and culminating in the 50-game suspension of Arizona Diamondback Pitcher Jason Grimsley for taking HGH.  Team salaries remain so disparate that the top team in the league, the New York Yankees, spends more on player salaries than the bottom five teams do collectively.  Teams such as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Kansas City Royals, and Pittsburgh Pirates remain perenniel underachievers.  And my two favorite teams, the Seattle Mariners in the American League and the Washington Nationals in the National League, were both cellar dwellers in the spring.
I had almost written off Major League Baseball this season, but recently I saw a spark of excitement in MLB that’s been absent since the Red Sox won the World Series (unless you’re a Chicago White Sox fan).  The hapless Detroit Tigers, doormats for years, now have the best record in the league.  The Boston Red Sox are on a 12-game win streak, sweeping the first-place New York Mets in Interleague Play.  The Atlanta Braves, for the first time since the 1980′s, are flirting with last place in their division, likely missing the playoffs.  The New York Yankees would be out of the playoffs for the first time since the strike-shortened 1994 season–if the playoffs were held today.  Old favorites such as Ken Griffey, Jr. and Ichiro are having stellar seasons.  Players off the juice such as Jason Giambi are playing well without the benefit of steroids.  And the Seattle Mariners are actually competitive for the first time since 2001, just two games back of the American League West-leading Oakland Athletics.  The Washington Nationals are still in last place.
While I still cringe when I think of the inequities existing in Major League Baseball, and I revel in the beauty of the National Football League, I’m optimistic that 2006 will be a good season for baseball.  All but three teams have won between 30 and 50 games so far this season–a narrow spread indicating that a majority of MLB teams are still in the race for a playoff spot.  While I’m happy the Mariners are again in the playoff hunt, I’m even happier that Major League Baseball–for a charge–is competitive and fun to watch.

Korea blocking VoIP

The Korean government recently enacted legislation prohibiting voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) calls placed on Korean telecommunication networks.  The ban goes into effect in July nationwide.  As a result, thousands of people, including many American expatriates, will find that their VoIP service rendered useless, and they will have to either find a way (illegally) around the ban or pay for Korean phone service.  Needless to say, Korean telephone companies are very happy, and VoIP providers and customers are (or will be) incensed.
VoIP enables Internet telephony and allows companies such as Vonage and Skype to provide telephone service to customers over the Internet.  VoIP is increasingly popular.  Although the sound quality of VoIP can be spotty if the Internet connection is subpar, it is much cheaper to use VoIP than paying for traditional phone service.  If you have a computer with broadband Internet access, a microphone, and speaker, you can use VoIP at a marginal cost.  If you use Skype, you don’t need any additional equipment.  Vonage and other VoIP provide service using phone equipment that plug into your computer.  Telephone calls travel over broadband pipes via Internet backbone.  Global Internet broadband networks are very expensive to build and are owned primarily by traditional telecommunication companies such as Korea Telecom (KT) and Dacom, Korea’s two largest telephone companies. 
Therein lies the VoIP conflict–Korean telephone companies built and maintain the telecommunication networks over which VoIP calls travel.  Companies such as Skype do not pay telephone companies for the privilege of sending Internet calls over their networks–computer users pay subscription fees when they sign up for Internet broadband access.  If a computer user enables VoIP over the same broadband connection they use to access the Internet, they eliminate the need to purchase additional telephony service from telephone providers.  As a result, telephone companies understandably claim that they are losing out on millions of telephone subscribers who switched–or will switch–to using VoIP exclusively.  Sources say that starting July 1, Korean phone companies will block VoIP access in Korea by blocking any Internet connection using COM Port 2 (broadband connections use Port 1; VoIP uses Port 2).  Many users will bypass the blocking of Port 2 by plugging their VoIP and broadband connections into routers that use Port 1. 
While I understand the telephone companies’ need to receive fair compensation for VoIP calls placed over their networks, I believe the Korean government’s action is short-sighted.  First, this regulatory action falls squarely in favor of the Korean telephone duopoly, KT and Dacom, at the expense of Korean consumers.  Korea often favors Korean conglomerates such as KT at the expense of consumers, stifling competition.  Secondly, Korea prides itself on being a hotbed of cutting-edge technology.  VoIP is on the bleeding edge of technological innovation.  Korea cannot stop the advance of VoIP as a worldwide telephony standard.  Korea may now be at the cutting edge of wireless and Internet technology, but its action effectively shuts Korea out of the next wave of telecommunication advances.  Much as the U.S. is criticized for missing out on stem cell research by banning the harvesting of embryonic stem cells, Korea is really missing the technology boat by banning VoIP.  Thirdly, KT and Dacom customers placing international phone calls inevitably use telecommunication networks outside of Korean telecommunication networks.  Essentially, KT and Dacom customers use foreign phone lines for free without paying compensatory surcharges.  It would not be beyond a begrieved VoIP company to prompt the U.S. or another nation to take Korea to the World Trade Organization for unfairly subsidizing Korean telecommunication companies by blocking VoIP.  Whether it will happen remains to be seen.

Intoxicated bliss

To inebriate is bliss, to wake up the next morning is remiss.
Any questions?

Seoul more expensive than Tokyo, London, and New York?

I definitely believe it.  Seoul has just been ranked the second most-expensive city in the world, after Moscow, Russia, according to a survey recently released by Mercer Human Resources Consulting.  The survey ranked the world’s 144 most expensive cities.  The top ten most expensive cities this year are (with 2005 ranking in parentheses):
  1. Moscow, Russia (4)
  2. Seoul, Korea (5)
  3. Tokyo, Japan (1)
  4. Hong Kong, China (9)
  5. London, England (3)
  6. Osaka, Japan (2)
  7. Geneva, Switzerland (6)
  8. Copenhagen, Denmark (8)
  9. Zurich, Switzerland (7)
  10. New York, USA (13) and Oslo, Norway (10)

So there you have it.  If you live in Seoul and wonder why it seems so darn expensive to live here, now you know why.  This is especially true if you live on a U.S. military base with subsidized pricing where tax-free goods are even cheaper than they are in the U.S.  Living in Seoul is more expensive than living in Switzerland, apparently.  Much of the fluctuation is due to currency movements, but it also has to do with recent housing booms in both Moscow and Seoul. 

When you juxtapose these survey results against the fact that yesterday marked the 56th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, you can’t help but be amazed by how far Seoul–and Korea–has come in just 53 years since the ceasefire was signed.  Still, Seoul has a long way to go to match the quality of life in many other cities around the world.  It doesn’t even rank in the top 50 worldwide for best quality of life.  This recognition is reserved primarily for Swiss and German cities, which captured six of 10 top ten cities based on quality of life (I believe the results are skewed–under no circumstances would I rank Frankfurt, Germany the 7th best city in terms of quality of life, especially considering that Munich is right behind it, ranked 8th.

Personally, I see one silver lining in this survey.  Asuncion, Paraguay, our next destination, is the world’s least expensive city ranked globally by Mercer.  I think I’ll wait to buy things in Paraguay.

All Revved Up for “Cars”

My wife and I took our son to his first full-length movie.  On Saturday, we saw the movie "Cars," the computer-generated animated feature from Disney and Pixar.  I believe it’s also the first animated film my wife has seen.  We all enjoyed the film.  I enjoyed "The Incredibles" a little more than "Cars," but "Cars" is also a very good movie.  My wife grew up in China and had limited exposure to animated features, and she never developed an interest in animation until she became a mother.  Our son, well, he was just too young to watch movies at the cimena.  He’s been watching videos at home and has his favorites, including "Thomas the Tank Engine," "Bob the Builder," and "The Wiggles." 
Some of the full-length animated features my son has watched have been too scary at times.  Call it the "Bambi Syndrome"–one of the first scenes in the beloved classic show Bambi’s mother dying from a hunter’s bullet.  "Shrek," "Brother Bear," "Chicken Little," and "The Lion King" all have scenes that frighten small children.  "Madagascar" was passable.  Most of these scenes include the villian–the evil vermin out to get the protagonist.  "Cars" was a joy because there were no villians other than an obnoxious race car named "Chick Hicks" with a penchant to run his competitors off the racetrack.  Other than that, it was eye candy for a young lad such as my son.  My son sat through the entire movie with his eyes riveted to the screen, chomping on popcorn as if Alfred Hitchcock had directed the film.  He didn’t ask to go to the restroom or wander the aisles.  He didn’t get out of his seat.  He sat in the theater seat, his legs dangling down, engrossed in the movie.  I had fun watching him watch the movie.  He had such a good experience that he is now a "Cars" convert.  Left unchecked, his room may soon be filled with "Cars" memorabilia.  As it is, we’ll probably order a couple of "Cars" movie posters, frame them, and put them in his room.  Then he can relive his "Cars" experience virtually every day. 

Guest blogger: Our son and dogs

My wife chimes in tonight with another blog entry (edited a bit by hubby, of course):

When we stayed with my in-laws for two weeks in Idaho during our vacation, our son had his first experience of living with dogs.  Grandma and grandpa have not just one or two, but three big dogs.  Before we went, we had tried to prepare him as much as we could about dogs, putting up pictures of the dogs on the refrigerator, saying hi to the dogs that we meet while taking a walk, etc.  Despite these efforts, when we first arrived, our son was still nervous around them.  You cant really blame him.  All of the dogs are bigger than him.  So we were protective of him and tried to keep the dogs at a healthy distance.  However, he got to watch how we–especially how grandma and grandpa–interacted with them.  We patted them, played with them, fed them, and loved them.  And the dogs showed their affection by sniffing, licking, or just laying next to us to receive a tummy rub. 

This easing-into method must have worked, because after less than a week, our son was much more relaxed around the dogs and developed a special liking to Patches, a female sheep dog with long white hair and back patches.  He loved to have Patches lie next to him and pat her gently.  Mazy is the biggest of all the three dogs, but the most timid, so our son knows that she will stay afar and not bother him.  Gradually, he learned that you can order dogs around, saying things like, "Stay there, Shadow," or "Lay down, Patchie," which was kind of fun.  Our son started to imitate the dogs and would crawl on all fours with a toy in his mouth.  He would lie on the floor and demand you give him a tummy rub, or would not stop licking your hand and arm.  The most memorable moment was when he sneaked out of the house while his dad was taking a nap, and when nobody was noticing, and did his business in grandma’s and grandpas backyard, just like the dogs.  Then he got stuck pulling up his underwear and had to call grandma to rescue him.  Mazy tried to help too by giving his buttocks a lick or two.  Now that he is not intimidated by the dogs, he chases them or pulls their tails.  The table turned, and we spent the last part of our time at grandmas house trying to keep him away from the dogs.

All in all, we are glad that our son got some much-needed exposure to dogs, much to his fathers relief.  Now if he could just learn how to swim.

A critical juncture

Dear Reader, have you ever been faced with the choice of deciding whether you should do what you really want to do or do what you think is most prudent?  Which choice would you make?  This is my fate right now, and I don’t know what to do.  I have until tomorrow evening to decide.

On the home front

Dear Reader, I haven’t shared much lately on what’s happening here at home.  Frankly, I haven’t had much new information to share with you.  My wife and I still work full time and return home each evening, spending weekends off with our son.  Our son is spending more time lately outside because it’s summer and the monsoon season has been relatively mild (thus far–fingers crossed).  Our new family members, three tetrafish–a blue one named "daddy," a pink one named "mommy," and a smaller, translucent one with a yellowish tinge named "baby"–are still adjusting to life at our home.  They’ve been in a bit of a funk since they were separated from their owner over the last three years.  I found out last week that a long-time family member, one of my parents’ dogs, a black lab named "Shadow," died at the old age of 13.  He was a good dog. 
We’ve entertained ourselves with outings, like our anniversary visit to Seoul Tower for dinner, and with BBQs, like the preemptive one with Bob of Tortmaster fame I used to outmanuever him.  It’s been a time filled with trips to the store, which lately seem to be one of the more lively activities.  My son enjoys the children’s book and toy aisles, my wife hovers around the clothing and grocery sections, and I sneak off to the media and technology areas.  I’ve also managed to break away twice for a couple of movies in between a steady stream of chores ranging from mowing to filing an insurance claim for our broken car window. 
This weekend will be a bit more lively.  On Friday evening I will travel with colleagues to the southern coast of Korea to greet and incoming sea vessel, and the following evening my wife and I will join a big group of friends for a noraebang reprisal.  We’ll also take our son to his first feature-length film, Pixar’s CGI-animated "Cars."  He’s really looking forward to it.  After our long respite in China and the U.S., we really haven’t minded laying low at home.  We’ve had a chance to recuperate and are now ready to get out and explore more of Korea before we leave this fascinating land.

North Korea photos

Dear Reader, below are links to a treasure trove of photos of North Korea.  These are the best batch of photos capturing life in the North that I have ever seen.  These photos were taken by a Russian visitor who visited the country in 2006.  The photos speak for themselves.  Click on the links below to view the various photo pages.  Page 1 also has links to all these photo pages.
Note to TortmasterI grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where we don’t have lightning bugs.  Man, talk about cultural insensitivity!  Remind me to take you to the Cascades some time for some snipe hunting.   As for sucking up–when your poor boss asks for your help moving a child’s swing set in the morning, and he laments that his wife is going to a wedding that evening and will be alone with his young child, and you know that the guest of honor has two young children about your boss’ child’s age, and you know that your boss shares a tangentially-related sense of humor with your guest of honor, you come to the logical conclusion that maybe it’s a good idea to invite him to a preplanned BBQ.  Sucking up, yeah, I know.  It’s absolutely shameless inviting your boss over for dinner–and your office too.

Featured Blog: The Truffle Shuffle Weakly

This month’s featured blog is an expose of one man’s life and worldview.  The Truffle Shuffle Weakly belongs to my good friend and Seoulmate, Bob, a.k.a. Tortmaster.  He’s sarcastic and extremely sharp witted, but he has a heart as big as Texas and is a very good natured guy.  He told me today that he’s planning to write about me (laced with sarcastic overtones, no doubt), so I thought I would beat him to the punch and appease him with soothing, kind words.  I hope that the conciliatory and laudatory tone of this blog entry will entice Bob to write something nice about me on his blog.  Will he?  Oh, probably not.  Considering that he just came over to our house tonight, and I served him homemade BBQ that he consumed vociferously as if he hadn’t eaten in days, I’m waiting and wondering whether the shoe will drop.  Nevertheless, I find it humorous even when his writing is merciless.  It’s just Bob. 
Bob has been living in Korea for about a year and will be here long after we’ve moved on to Paraguay.  (Yes, Bob, I’m aware that Paraguay is the only "guay" in the World Cup tournament, but I have a feeling that the Americans will also be making a quick exit tonight after Italy beats them.  The U.S. can’t even say it’s the only "United States" in the tournament.  After all, the United Mexican States, a.k.a. Mexico, advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals.)  Bob lives in Seoul, Korea with his wife Mzia and two beautiful children, Marian and Givi.  Bob and Mzia met when Bob worked in the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet republic.  Mzia is from Tbilisi, Georgia, and she makes absolutely wonderful Georgian food.  Bob makes mean Tex-Mex food and offers a great respite from Taco Bell.  Meals at their home feature some of the best we’ve eaten in Korea (they also provide a much needed break from Korean food). 
Bob recently had an unexpected illness that put him in the hospital for a few days, but fortunately he recovered and is doing well now.  He looked good when I saw him tonight.  You can read more about it on his blog.  Now that he’s well rested, he’s starting to dive into some deep political issues in his blog that go far beyond anything I write about here.  For example, I have never blogged about assertions that eating kimchi combats SARS and avian flu.  Bob’s blogging is not for the political feint of heart.  He asks challenging questions and offers keen observations, seasoned with a complexity and aggressiveness derived from a successful legal background.  Stop by, have a read, and post a comment.  Bob’s dying to have someone other than me post comments on his blog.  Ask him what "The Truffle Shuffle Weakly" means–he’ll be glad you did.  Post-script:  The U.S. tied Italy 1-1 in the World Cup.  So, congratulations Team USA!  You scored your first point in European against a European major.  Please beat Ghana 3-0 so you can advance to the quarterfinals and hope the Italians beat or tie the Czechs.