Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Postcard from Seoul (Part 4)

(Part 1 of this series can be found here.)

In addition to two of the royal palaces, I visited the National Museum briefly. It's housed in a massive structure (world's 6th largest museum) that looks like something I.M. Pei might design.

The land where the museum is situated is also of interest. It seems Korea has always been dominated by the world powers of the day, so to speak. Historically, Korea has a strong connection with northern China. See these knife-coins:

Compare with modern currency:

A thousand won is a bit less than a buck. To convert to US dollars, I simply lopped three zeros off. Close enough...

Traditionally, Korea has been under Chinese suzerainty for long periods. Tribute was paid. Then came the Japanese, who annexed the peninsula and managed to erase the royal palaces. And then came the United States. It's the 21st century, but bang in the middle of Seoul, a mega-metropolis (10 million inhabitants city, 25 million including environs), is a U.S. Army base. The museum is situated on what was formerly a U.S. Army golf course, returned recently to the Korean government. But the Yongsan U.S. Army base is still there situated on prime Seoul real estate.

On one of the weekend days that I was there, there was a big traffic jam. The cause was the deployment of literally thousands upon thousands of riot police with shields. These guys were bussed using hundreds of police buses, see picture below.

I have no idea what the protests were about. However, people around seemed to go about their normal business.

One final note. Since it was my first visit to Korea, I've often wondered how the food compares to those Korean restaurants around 35th Street in Manhattan, New York, informally known as K-town. I found the BBQ and Bulgogi weren't too different but I had one interesting experience at this restaurant:

Not being able to read, write or understand Korean, I wandered into this place and sat down. Food was plonked down in front of me, and hand signals were given on what goes with what.

I've never been in a restaurant where there was no menu (because one didn't exist), no need to order (everyone was served the same thing). There was soup base, tofu, chicken, and some dried fish in there too. A bowl of rice and cold soup accompanied the meal. After eating, I got up, and they showed me the price on a calculator. No language barrier.

Next morning, I pass by the restaurant. There was a line of people waiting to get in.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Postcard from Seoul (Part 3)

(Parts 1 and 2 are here and here, respectively.)

There is an urban revitalization story behind the stream shown below. It's situated near the City Hall. Cheonggyecheon is now a tourist attraction and a nice place for an after-dinner stroll, or sit by the stream and drink beer and chat as most of the people pictured below seem to be doing. But it used to be a smelly stream covered by concrete.

If you zoom in on the picture, you can just about make out a backlit waterfall that marks the emergence of the stream above ground.

As you can see from the close-up below, the stream has been completely remodeled in some sections.

Those guys pictured are not trash collectors. They're collecting the coins from the wishing well.

It's also a recommended running route. Because it sits below the roads, you can run uninterrupted by street crossings. After discovering it at night, the next morning I went for a run. Coincidentally, I happened upon a procession (perhaps a daily event, recreating some change of guard between palaces?):

At the waterfall end of the stream, the plaza connects to a wide avenue.

There are two statues. The principal one is of King Sejong, the guy responsible from switching the written language to Hangul from Chinese characters.

There is a small (free) museum depicting his life underneath the statue. The wide avenue terminates at the gate known as Gwanghwamun:

Behind Gwanghwamun is the main palace called Gyeongbokgung. Here is what Gwanghwamun looks like in daytime.

Changing of the guard ceremony at the entrance:

I'm not so enthusiastic about pictures of the palaces. Here is one below.

The reason is they're all mostly fake, i.e. modern reconstructions from the ground up. It's not the Koreans' fault. Gyeongbokgung was razed to the ground by the Japanese, when they subjugated the Korean peninsula during the 1st half of the 20th century.

Behind Gyeongbokgung lies the real seat of power, the Blue House. This was as close as I got:

I was amazed to see police on rollerblades in front of the Blue House:

There also seems to be a bicycle police troupe:

I did visit another palace, called Changdeokgung. (The first picture from part 1 (here) of this series is from Changdeokgung.) It's a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, but it's still mostly fake:

These stone markers are used to indicate the rank of the rows of officials, here 9th, leading up to Chong-jon hall:

There are actually stone markers on both sides. Military officials on the left and civil officials on the right. Inside Chong-jon hall:

The palaces are done in classic Chinese style. However there is one interesting detail. Contrast the floor above with the one below:

Because winters are cold in Seoul, and these are living quarters, the floor is finished using paper. Why? Because underneath there is a heating system. People slept on the floor not in beds.

Lest you think I dutifully researched all this information, it all came from this lady, the official English-language palace guide. You're only allowed to tour Changdeokgung in the company of a guide. But I saw people wandering off by themselves.

Part 4 is here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Postcard from Seoul (Part 2)

(Part 1 is here.)

In the last picture in the previous blog entry,repeated below, one can see the Hangang (Han River) and one of the bridges in this distance when looking south from the Seoul Tower.

Here is one of those bridges (there are 27 in Seoul). We're looking north back towards the Seoul Tower (visible in the distance if you enlarge the picture) from the south bank of the river.

The Hangang is very shallow and wide (up to 2km in places). Since it is shallow, there is no commercial traffic along the river.

As I mentioned in part 1, Seoul seems particularly people-friendly. As further evidence of this, there seems to be an extensive network of bike paths along the river. As a cyclist, I wished I had my bike with me. I saw a lot of cyclists (not just this dude) using the path next to the bridge:

It's difficult to tell from pictures alone, but I'd much rather be leisurely biking along the Hangang than along the Hudson river bike path in New York City. Seoul just seems to have that relaxed feeling I've never experienced in any other mega-metropolis.

The reason why I'm visiting this out-of-the-way bridge is that Seoul has this seemingly unique concept of building lookout cafés at some of the bridges.

I hung around until sunset and then had a drink upstairs at the Gureum lookout café whilst taking in the city view:

Very, very cool indeed. It's not spectacular like Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong at night, see below, but I can't imagine wanting to ride my bike in metropolitan Hong Kong.

(The two available-light night pictures above are evidence of the clear superiority of cameras released in 2012 compared to those of just three years ago. Both pictures were shot at f/2.0 (wide open) with the 12mm Olympus lens. But the key is that they were taken with a shutter speed of 1/5sec *handheld*, and although it's hard to tell from the reduced-for-the-web picture size, both pictures are remarkably free of blur from camera shake. That's Olympus's new image stabilizer. A considerable improvement over the stabilizer in the 3 year old E-P1. Since the shutter speed can be slow, this has the bonus of allowing for a relatively noiseless ISO 200.)

Anyway, I digress.. back to Seoul. How to get to Café Gureum? Take the subway to Dongjak station. Take exit 1 and walk to the bridge.

The subway is very easy to use. Stations seemed priced according to distance. I bought single-use tickets at the machine (English language instructions are available).

At the end of the journey, I'm surprised you get to keep the ticket. But wait, there's a refund machine. You get 500 won back when you give up the ticket.

On the trains, it's interesting to see everyone busy on their (mostly Samsung) smartphones. However, they're not yapping on the phone. Rather, it seems everyone is running some kind of text chat program (maybe Ktalk here?) or browsing the web.

Like in Hong Kong this year, in Seoul that unmistakable Samsung phone with the huge screen (Galaxy S III, mostly in white) seems to have broken Apple's lock on the cool smartphone market. Previously, it seemed that everyone in Asia wanted to have and to be seen with an iPhone 4. Now clearly, the nearly 5" screen Samsung rules. Especially since in Asia, people seem to have moved beyond the voice (phone call) paradigm. Smartphones are mostly for text chat and web browsing. And when voice is reduced to a subsidiary role, the 5" screen is no longer an encumbrance. At any rate, every other person I encountered seems to be sporting one. A Hong Kong friend commented that it has superceded her iPad.

Next. Part 3 here.

Postcard from Seoul (Part 1)

I've been to many countries but never to Korea before. I finally got the chance to do some sightseeing in Seoul for a few days. Based on my initial impressions, I think Seoul is damn near perfect.

It's a very large city but doesn't feel that way. At more than 10 million inhabitants in the city proper (and 25 million in the greater metropolitan area), it should feel extremely crowded but it doesn't have that hemmed-in, wall-to-wall of humanity feeling of other large asian cities.

The climate in early summer feels wonderful (compared to hot and sticky Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Tokyo). It seems to be at least as clean as Tokyo. There is no pollution problem compared to Hong Kong or any Chinese city. I spotted some e-buses up on Namsam, (near the Seoul Tower):

EV charging:

I didn't spot many Japanese or German cars there, people there seem to buy mostly domestic. Climate-wise, it's blessed with four seasons, though obviously I don't know what winter is like there.

A friend, whom I met at Tokyo University, originally from Seoul (now a professor in the UK), gave me some tips by email on where to stay and what not to miss. It was also a perfect opportunity to test the new Olympus E-M5 that I got in Hong Kong (see blog post here). I decided on two lenses, the Panasonic Lumix f/1.7 20mm pancake (40mm equivalent) - in preference to the Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4, plus the wide-angle Olympus 12mm f/2.0 (24mm equivalent). Both lenses and the E-M5 are extremely compact despite a wide max aperture, so I don't feel as though I'm lugging around a heavy DSLR system.

In this post, I'll concentrate on the Seoul Tower, but here is an example from the very useful 12mm (24mm equivalent) wide-angle lens at one of the palaces:

Taken at the Changdeokgung World Heritage site. There's a reason why the royal palace building looks so spiffy... later.

One reason why I feel there is a lot to love about Seoul is that it is people-friendly. By comparison, many cities of this size seem to consist of huge tower block after tower block.

For instance, there is a small forest around a small mountain in the middle of the city where the Seoul Tower (pictured below) is situated.

I dearly wish I had time enough to run up to the Tower in the early morning; there is a cushioned path along a tree-lined (therefore shaded) winding road. Being in the middle of the city, there are several road tunnels that cut through the mountain. One is the Namsam tunnel #3. This entrance is in Myeongdong:

Next to it is a (free) elevator on a slope:

It takes you up to the cable car station, which in turn takes you up to the Seoul Tower:

Looking back down towards Myeongdong (to the North):

The cable car top station is visible in the foreground (bottom of the picture).

In the tower itself, even the (men's) toilet (at least) has an excellent view:

One gets the feeling that Seoul makes a real effort to be visitor-friendly. At the tower, I chanced upon a demonstration using real weapons. Here, I tried to catch the guy on the right in mid-swing:

This is actually a detail, cropped from a much larger picture. (I didn't bring a telephoto lens, the one I'm interested, the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 (150mm equivalent), isn't yet available.) But thanks to the lightning-fast focus mechanism of the EM-5, if you look at the picture closely, you can see he has cleanly sliced through the straw bundles but they are yet to fall. 1/800 sec shutter speed. (Had only one chance but I was able to take this in single-shot mode, didn't need continuous drive.)

A mock fight (with the same real weapons). The guys lying down are pretending to be dead (not taking a break):

They even let you try on some traditional Korean outfits:

I wonder who looks more fake, him or me?

Facing south, there is also a lot more city. You can make out the Hangang (Han River) and one of the many bridges in the distance. The city stretches out way beyond that too.

We go to the Hangang in Part 2 of this Postcard here

Monday, June 4, 2012

Shenzhen Ping Pong: Drill Training Levels

Most of the ping pong coaches in Shenzhen are former professional players, now retired from competition to earn a living from coaching.

I've taken lessons with several coaches but the guy on the right is different. His name is Wang Kejie (王克捷). Talking to him, I gathered he is not retired, i.e. he is still being paid to train and compete. In fact, his palmares includes the China Superleague, the highest level league in the world.

Not surprisingly, he is the most expensive coach I've ever hired. Don't get me wrong, I don't need the best. In fact, a practice partner of his level is kinda wasted on me. Any decent former professional probably would do just fine.

Update: a friend (thanks John!) told me Wang Kejie is rated 2800 on ratingscentral.com. My last rating on USATT was 2100 (from years ago). And a 200 point gap is huge. So a 700 point gap is, well, as wide as the Grand Canyon perhaps...

But, you see, the thing is, I couldn't find anyone I knew to coach me on a Saturday morning. All the coaches that I knew were already spoken for. In Shenzhen, with Hong Kong just next door, Saturday mornings are peak hours, aka prime time. In other words, they're all fully booked in advance.

However, Wang Kejie was available. (His price is 150 yuan an hour, well above the going rate. Usually, I pay around 80 yuan for someone as good as the best in the USA.) I booked him for 3 hours solid starting at 9:30am. I brought a camera and tripod, 6 shirts, 2 towels and 3 liters of cold drinks. In other words, I was ready to sweat hard and really earn my way to lunch time.

I haven't posted videos for a while. Let me rectify that right now. Let's begin with some basic drills.

Single Stroke Drills

Video #1. This is me forehand looping from a fixed position.

Link: here

Although it may not appear much different, my forehand has undergone quite significant structural changes. Working with another coach Liu Chang, who has been patiently working on changing my fundamentals - whom I'll feature in a later blog entry, I've been aiming to eliminate all tension from my shoulder and arm. In fact, I consciously try to not think about generating power from the arm at all. The closer I can get the power source to migrate down to the balls of my feet, the better my stroke will be. My backswing is also considerably reduced from older videos, a good thing. The followthrough is still too far across the centerline of the chest. It's still work in progress but at least I feel I am finally making some progress in my forehand loop, though I'm still generating too much force from my arm.

Video #2 should convince you (although not visible to the eye) that my arm has really relaxed a lot. This is me being fed underspin balls to both corners. I use my forehand loop throughout.

Link: here

There is no way no how I could have looped a whole basket of balls using the old (incorrect) stroke with my right shoulder driving the ball forward hard, and maintaining tension on the arm. I guess with my over-big old stroke I would have lasted about 10 balls max. The only one way I could have looped a whole basket of balls, 67 in this video, is with a completely relaxed arm.

Video #3 is to do with the backhand stroke. This is the reverse penhold stroke I've been trying to develop in Shenzhen and Los Angeles. My reverse backhand is far from solid, the arm wobbles a bit too much, but progress here is easier than with my forehand loop. The reason of course is that the reverse penhold backhand is relatively new to me and plastic. By contrast, I've been forehand looping for a lot longer: thus, the way of thinking about how to generate spin and power and long-ingrained muscle memory are all harder to overcome.

Link: here

Video #4 introduces me to the 敲門 (rap on door) technique for the reverse penhold block. I've always found the reverse block to be less reliable than my old traditional (one-sided) penhold block. And under time pressure, I often revert back to old ways. This video show the reverse penhold block could be a superior weapon. I hope to be able to incorporate this into my subconscious memory as soon as possible.

Link: here

Set Piece Drills

The previous four videos are all about drills for a single stroke. I believe I'm reasonably competent at the single drill level. However, there are levels above that with drills before we can even contemplate competition play. Unfortunately, rather disappointingly, I start to fall apart and lose stroke discipline at these next levels.

For example, strokes that are very high percentage for me at the single stroke level suddenly become rather 50-50 or iffy. I need to do a lot more work at these levels.

Another disappointing characteristic is that once I feel a bit pressured, maybe ball is faster or lands a bit deeper and closer to my body than I'm comfortable with, I tend to revert back to older strokes. For example, my backswing becomes large again, or I use the shoulder and upper arm to generate power, or my followthrough has wobbled to one side instead of straight ahead. (With coach Liu Chang, as I'll describe in a later post, set pieces are introduced bit by bit with lots of feedback on how to maintain form.)

Video #5 illustrates set piece play. This is where there is a sequence of known shots. For example, the coach may serve short, you agree in advance to push the ball back short. And then the coach will push the ball deep to the backhand side. And you agree to attack that deep push.

Set piece play is more difficult to execute without losing stroke discipline due to the need to adjust and move between the strokes. With movement in and out of the table, balance and weight on the feet undergo large changes, plus timing changes and that all can throw your shot off. Solid percentages can plummet.

Another scenario illustrated in the video is the coach serves short to your forehand. You step in and flip the ball cross-court but have to leap back to cover the deep backhand, as you have agreed in advance to receive his attack there.

Link: here

Finally, video #6 illustrate semi-free play. In other words, the sequence is only partially agreed upon in advance. Here, the coach will serve short. I will try to receive the ball, maintain stroke discipline and try to cover the table and keep the point going. Unfortunately, I have to confess - even if it's not abundantly clear from the clip - I'm really not there. I feel by this stage of complexity, I've totally lost all the balance and discipline that I manage to exhibit in single stroke drills.

Link: here

And of course, there are drill levels above this. Notice in the set pieces above, the coach is not really serving at a high level or even pushing like he would in a real match. Both his serving and push levels are deliberately dumbed down so I can actually get a chance to practice the set piece. So even these set pieces don't really count as point simulation.

In a real match, I'm pretty sure I can't get past any of his serves anyway.