All hail the idiot box


The medium is the message

“I want to watch a moooovie…” That’s become the near-daily mantra my son repeats as soon as he wakes up and right before going to bed. Power Rangers, Little Einsteins, Caillou… in truth it could probably be anything and he’d likely turn to stone in front of the glowing screen.

Which is great for me on a weekday at 7pm, dead tired and looking to tune out alongside him. But there’s no denying that he’s grown addicted to the TV, and while we’ve managed to curb his watching time to just a couple of hours per day the box’s presence, even when off, is magnetic.

Which is what drew me to this article from Foreign Policy. Living in one of the world’s most high-tech societies I naturally assumed that the revolution would indeed not be televised but rather Tweeted or Twittered or thumbed across the digital ether. Hard to believe the ol’ boob tube still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

According to the author, televsion programming could help to create

a world more equal for women, healthier, better governed, more united in response to global tragedy, and more likely to vote for local versions of American Idol than shoot at people.

Where’s that damn remote? In cities, towns and villages — even where there is no electricity — around the globe humans gather around their TVs like moths to a flame. One Indian lawmaker even encouraged residents to watch more so as to lower the country’s birthrate.

In olden days people had no other entertainment but sex, which is why they produced so many children…  it is important that there is electricity in every village so that people watch TV till late in the night. By the time the serials are over, they’ll be too tired to have sex and will fall asleep.

I guess it beats forced sterilisations, but with Baywatch the biggest television series ever with an estimated audience of 1 billion I have to wonder…

Television programming here in Korea is huge. I remember stepping into a local bunsikjeom (Korean style greasy spoon) for dinner once. Across from me sat these two leathery old men, chewing on raw chilie peppers, downing soju by the bottle and arguing with the waitress about who would marry who on the local soap opera playing on the screen above. Weird.

But then again, former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reportedly gave his North Korean counterpart a box set of the drama Jewel in the Palace during his 2007 summit in Pyongyang.

Russian-born Korea scholar Andrei Lanov has long been trumpeting the use of DVDs and similar means to bring news of the outside world to North Koreans starved by their government’s self-imposed isolation.

Rumors of South Korean prosperity have begun to spread, assisted by popular smuggled DVDs of South Korean movies. The world’s most perfect Stalinist regime is starting to disintegrate from below.

According to Lankov, DVD technology is perfectly suited to the North Korean case given the relative affordabilty of players and discs. And while radios have their place in delivering subversive information, images showing the propserity of Seoul and surrounding areas  make it hard to swallow the line that the South is a bastion of poverty and misery.


Immigrant wives diversify S. Korean theatre

Via Yonhap a nice article on how a fledgling theatre company is aiming to help give a voice to the struggles immigrant women in South Korea face. 

 “When someone tells me ‘you scared me,’ I reply, ‘You scared me, too,'” Berera says with a laugh.

 Berera is a main member of the [Salad theatre] company begun earlier this year. Funded by the United Nations Development Program, Salad aims to create jobs for immigrant women like Berera who left their homeland and wed Korean husbands.

“We thought it would help immigrant women to tell their stories on stage rather than just talk about the difficulties they face in Korea,” said Ahn Soon-hwa, co-chairman of Salad and a Chinese immigrant, at the company’s rehearsal room in northern Seoul.

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Recession boosts book sales

According to Yonhap, the financial downturn has boosted sales of books on finance, employment and religion, the last of which saw a 185 percent spike in sales last year. Cooking too was a big seller as more families are staying in to eat rather than dining out.

“Books are hardly luxury items. They are one of the most inexpensive means of entertainment that last quite long compared to movies or plays,” said Song Young-ho at Yes 24, a local Internet bookstore that sold more than 25 million books last year. “We expect to do even better this year with our increased discount services.”

“People are, naturally, trying to find answers to the financial crisis and are turning to religion and self-help books for comfort,” said Park Young-joon, the branch manager of Gwanghwamun Kyobo Book Center. “Novels are also popular during the difficult times with many people keen to escape from reality.”

Looks like the recession did what all those mothers out there couldn’t – get their kids to read more.

Agencies use “cloned phones” to hold celebs hostage

The JoongAng has a story on an agency that cloned the phone of a top actress in order to keep tabs on her whereabouts and other private affairs. From what I gather in talking to friends here, a lot of these agencies are run by gangster types who see their clients as investments instead of actual human beings. Thus they claim some sort of ownership over their “products.”

This from Yonhap:

An unfolding probe this week into the alleged cloning of a top celebrity’s cell phone by the star’s own agent has renewed debate on the boundaries between an entertainer’s right to privacy and commercial interests.

Sidus HQ, one of the largest entertainment agencies in South Korea, secretly paid technical experts 6.4 million won (US$4,630) to clone actress Jeon Ji-hyeon’s phone in 2007. The actress only learned of the agent’s scheme this month.

While the agency denies the allegations, what strikes me is how the entertainment industry is run. I’m not a huge fan of Korean pop-culture, but seems to me that the fewer there are of agencies like these, the more diverse array of styles there would be in the industry.

Slumdog Schwarzanegger

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

Years ago I stepped off a bus in Mumbai — it was still Bombay then — and into a sea of waist-deep water as the annual monsoon transformed the city into a giant, filthy swimming pool. I turned around to look at the driver, thinking maybe I’d catch a ride back the way we came. He just shook his head, which mostly means yes in India, but not this time. It was 4 p.m. and I was clear on the other side of the city, with a lake of floating rickshaws and stalled taxis between me and my lodgings. I was staying with friends of the family in a neighborhood called Borivili, a suburb about an hour or so by train from Churchgate and the center of town.

I had been in the house all day, soaking up the daily routine of life in a city I knew nothing about and was completely captivated by. The scent of coconut chutney on the stove, the bearded holy man on the television or the soft Vedic chanting pouring out of the stereo. The crows that would land on the windowsill as young kids played cricket in the courtyard, the palm trees sweating in the afternoon humidity. The little apartment was a universe of discovery for me but my presence began to annoy the father of the house, a terse writer from Kerala with a fondness for beedies (rolled cigarettes) and straight talk. He told me to get out – at least for the day. So I did, hopping a bus headed to Santa Cruz station, which by the time I arrived was all but submerged by the afternoon flooding.

The first thing I did was wade over to the train station to see about a train back to Borivili. I got on the platform, which was also a sea, but of people, not water. After about 30 minutes this rolling heap of bodies came steaming down the tracks. I can’t think of any way to describe it other than to say that the body of the train was invisible under the swarming mass of people hanging onto every nook and cranny they could dig their fingers into. Still, I made my way forward, until a hand fell on my shoulder. I turned and there was this businessman waving his finger in my face, his head shaking from side to side. He too meant no. Don’t get on, he said.

Good thing I didn’t. It would have been a nightmarish ride and I would not have had the experience I did later that night.

I left the train station, down the stairs and back into the still rising waters. I was feeling desperate and began sticking rupees in drivers’ faces as if they’d somehow turn the waterlogged vehicles into rafts to carry me home. Nothing doin’, so I began to wade back down the way I’d come, not quite sure where I’d end up but too wet and chilled to stand still waiting for a miracle.

I walked for about an hour in the rain, stopping at a corner to look around in disbelief as most folks didn’t seem the slightest bit perturbed by the apocalyptic scene around me. That’s when I saw him walking straight at me.

Young, muscular and well dressed, he came right up to me and asked where I was headed, like I was out for an afternoon stroll or something. I told him and asked how long it would take. “Maybe tomorrow morning sometime,” he said. When I asked him what he thought I should do he said with a straight face, “walkie talkie… we walk and we talk.” And that’s what we did, all the way to the Juhu slums, where he lived with several younger sisters and a female cousin in a corrugated tin shack and where I spent a night gaining a new appreciation for the muscle bound Austrian who is now my governor.

Like Malik, the hero of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” my young host that night had dreams. As we walked he told me about his work as a salesman in the pre-Bangalore computer industry, about his father in the Gulf driving a cab and about his deceased mother. And as he talked the neighborhood changed. I noticed a sewer pipe above the still-high water and lots of people standing in front of tin-shacks watching as we walked passed. And I began to wonder whether it was a good idea to be following him and whether I wouldn’t find myself minus an organ come morning. We Americans are a trusting sort, aren’t we?

He was Muslim, living in a world of poverty that contributed to periodic outbreaks of religious violence. He told me how his family had tried to hide their religious identity during riots some years earlier. “We would have been killed,” he said flatly. He led me through the front door and chased away his young sisters and cousin. Women of the house are not to be seen by male visitors. They scurried into the adjoining room to cook up some chapatis and dal while he handed me a dry dhoti and T-shirt to change into. He gave me his bed, the only piece of furniture in the house. He squatted down on the dirt floor.

“Who is your hero?” he asked as I dug into my meal. I couldn’t think of anyone, and looking back now, I think that’s what I’d gone to India to find all those years ago. Under the single light bulb he pulled out his wallet and opened it to a photo that he kept inside, like some secret treasure. And there was Arnold, muscles bulging and pearly whites shining for the camera. “He is my hero, because he went to America speaking no English and look at him now.” You could say I was surprised.

At 21, I had done some traveling but this was my first serious stint outside the U.S. I’d been a cycle courier in San Francisco and then New York, ridden across country as a green-haired vegetarian after squatting for a year in New York’s lower East Side. In short, I didn’t know who the hell I was or what I wanted. And here was this guy with nothing who knew exactly who he was and what he wanted. He wanted to come to America, which maybe partly explains why he took me in for the night. But more than that he just wanted out, because he had dreams that took root in the fact that he knew he had something to offer that was smothered by his present circumstances.

I can see him sitting there in Malik’s chair, answering that million dollar question. Only it isn’t the beautiful Atika Patel in his mind’s eye but Arnold, the governator, a living embodiment of what’s possible with a little luck and muscle grease.

This story was originally published by New America Media

Today’s headlines:

Korea drying up

2MB sticks to his guns

Squatters killed in police clash

Korean court convicts man for illegal file-sharing

Was surprised to come acorss this story on a decision by an appeals court here to uphold the conviction of a man charged with uploading movies onto the internet for proift. The decision comes as the movie industry here has been in a tailspin, in large part due to the high volume of downloading. All the people I know here do it, and it’s so damn easy. Not even five minutes and you’ve got the latest releases for pennies. In line with the last post, the decision reflects a shifting social landscape here.