Thursday, May 28, 2015

Song of the Sea

TIL there's a melancholic Irish mashup of Ponyo and Brave that's based on Celtic folklore.

The screenshots I took are a little blurry because I couldn't pause the player I was using without having the playbar and other things appear, but I mean, wow. Everything in this movie was meticulously planned and gloriously executed.

It centers around the selkie - the Nordic and British Isles variant of the mermaid - who is half human and half seal. Like mermaids, selkies are also beautiful, haunting muses.

Wiki'ing the other two main elements of the traditional folklore so wonderfully depicted in this visually arresting film led me down a pretty deep rabbit hole of medieval tales that I'll have to pursue when I'm not tired from coughing all night: they are the Irish sea god Manannán mac Lir and his mother Macha who, I once randomly learned, is actually a horse goddess. There's no shortage of cliché fantasy art out there dedicated her, and apparently no limit to the things she's a goddess of, so I guess any and every theme and form is fair game.

In this film, a father of two has been deliberately turned into the solemn stone cliff (atop which the main characters' lighthouse sits, appropriately enough) by his owl witch mother, because he sobbed and suffered so greatly after losing his love that she took all of his feelings so he wouldn't be in pain anymore. 
The father and his aged mother - conspicuously drawn as owl-like as possible - are the parallels or representations of Mac Lir and Macha. 

Watching these simply-drawn but genuine characters move through swirling, painted landscapes and rooms while living out and trying to cope with profound feelings of loss and resentment is deeply touching. 
I've made posts before commenting on what all too often seems like the slow and tragic death of animation as a serious artform as a wave of generic CGI continues to wash over everything, but this animation studio is very much that lighthouse on the cliff, one of the beacons in a creative night dotted with cold, mass-produced stars.

I would love to show this to a kid I may or may not have one day; it felt like an instant classic. You can read a bit more about it and see some of the concept art here.

Interestingly, this comes from the same studio that did The Secret of Kells, and this summer, they're starting on an adaptation of The Breadwinner, the award-winning Deborah Ellis youth novel about an adolescent Afghan girl who poses as a boy so her family can survive in recently-Taliban-taken-over Afghanistan. It was quite good, though it would've been better if I could've found the two subsequent parts online, too. 
Anyway, a departure from these Celtic traditions is really interesting and kind of unexpected. I'm looking forward to it.

Here's the trailer for Song of the Sea:

And the pleasant, soothing soundtrack, which you'll especially like if you're the kind of person who likes going into New Age shops where they're burning Nag Champa and playing Enya:

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Inside a German Power Plant

One of the last things we did before leaving Rostock was to take an impromptu tour of Hannes' dad's power plant. When I say "impromptu" I mean, "it had been mentioned numerous times but we decided to hurry over there spontaneously one evening while at his parents' apartment getting drunk because the weather finally cleared up enough for the view from the top to be worth seeing".

I don't know anything about power plants but I do like learning about how stuff works, and since coal-based energy production is kind of the only critical component of modern society that's also about to destroy us all (antibiotic-resistant strains of super bacteria probably won't get ALL of us before we're reclaimed by the sea, right?), it seems like an important thing to know more about.

Now, at the time, I was pleasantly surprised by the apparent efficiency of not only the plant's energy exploitation capabilities, but also of the way the various toxic heavy metals left over as biproducts of its extraction are filtered out and subsequently disposed of. It was a genuinely interesting and informative tour.

Now, at the time, I was also kind of drunk. Plus, I mean, a lot has happened since then. Like a week later we went to Berlin and from there we moved to Tokyo, where I had found and booked us a hostel and then a nearby shared apartment and also had a job interview, and that was just within the first four days. Forgot the details of that interesting power plant shit, yo.

I ended up asking Hannes to e-mail his dad to ask about a couple of basic things so I could write about the plant, because nearly all of the information you can Google (in English) about this sort of thing is American. The response got was a 16-page .PDF from one of his dad's coworkers, in English, all about the plant's history, stats, and functions. So now I feel kind of guilty for turning a couple of questions about arsenic and lead into a big thing, but, well, enquiring minds want to know.

So here's your basic security office and cooling tower. The plant's towers are visible from a considerable distance; this coastal area is very flat.

The steam that comes out of these towers (this is the scale model that shows how it's filtered and cooled) is surprisingly clean. I mean, the plant still releases tons of CO2, but at least it has a handle on toxic biproducts and waste.

The control room, obviously. It's badass and 90's action movie-looking, though.

Deep shaft is deep

Interesting emergency phone is interesting

Because this plant - which provides more than half the energy for the sparsely-populated federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania - simultaneously extracts energy for both electricity and heat as a CHP or "combined heat and power" or "cogeneration" plant, it operates at approximately 60% efficiency. Calculations have apparently shown and it's claimed that CHPDH (the new letters stand for "district heating") is the cheapest and most efficient means of carbon emissions reduction at present. 

So, 60% of the ~6.7 kilowatt-hours of available energy per kilo of the coal itself is pulled out and used. Wiki's example of what this ends up meaning is that, if you're talking about an average plant that operates at 40% efficiency, it takes about 717 pounds (or 325 kilos) of coal to power a 100-watt lightbulb for a year. 
First of all: how shitty is that? I mean, everyone knows fossil fuels are bad, that we use them way too much, and that they make a few lucky people so disgustingly wealthy that we won't be able to transition away from them within the foreseeable future, but thinking about all this stuff really drove that example home.
I recycle compulsively, walk places a lot, and never want to own a car again if I can help it, but how many tons of coal have gotten combusted and released untold thousands of pounds/kilos of carbon dioxide into the air from my lifetime of frequent computer use alone, so far? It's hard to try to picture an entire hillside of dirty coal getting burned while I've uploaded and edited photos, typed this stuff, downloaded music, and if we go really far back, browsed Sailormoon Geocities sites.
Anyway, the formula to calculate the energy value of coal is pretty complicated and full of fancy chemistry abbreviations, but I figure 20% higher efficiency means about 20% less coal burned to achieve the same output, right? Really, if someone reads this and knows how it works, let me know. But if that's right, 20% higher efficiency means over 143 pounds or around 65 kilos less to power that one lightbulb for one year. 
The Rostock plant's efficiency is impressive because of the long-term resource savings on a large scale. Plus it went online in late 1994, it's not even like it's new or anything.

To further put that in perspective, the global average efficiency level is only 31% (source). I was thinking that China and India probably drag it down pretty hard, but in 2007, the average efficiency of American plants was only 32% in 2007 (source). Not trying to decontextualise it or anthing, though; this is just one example of a particularly efficient plant, and I'm sure (or at least I hope) similar ones exist in the U.S. This article claims that the average efficiency of all German coal-fired plants was only 38% as of 2013. Booo.

(from the English version of the plant's informational .PDF)

The view from the roof was pretty nice; it's too bad we only had a Google Nexus tablet 
with us to take pictures.

Aside from energy efficiency and production, there's the important matter of biproduct use and pollutant release.
I'm not sure how accurate this summation is, nor do I know how many U.S. coal-fired plants are controlled (fitted with expensive technology that keeps their air pollutant output much cleaner, like the Rostock plant) vs. uncontrolled because I just can't find the information, but some of the only similar, specific data I could find to compare with The European Pollutant Release and Transfer's information on the Rostock plant was from the Institute for Energy Research, which is Koch-funded. I was thinking it was useful until I got to a sentence that said something along the lines of, "the perception that air quality is getting worse is wrong, as shown by the EPA's data; coal power is cleaner than ever before".


At any rate, the numbers are pretty appalling. Even when you convert American short tons to metric tonnes - which aren't that different - the average uncontrolled coal-fired plant numbers for sulfur and nitrogen oxides, mercury, arsenic, nickel, and other heavy metals are many times, even ten times higher than those of the Rostock plant. And that's just most of the other shit, not CO2. 
According to that source I'm not sure about, the average uncontrolled plant releases between 3.1 and 3.2 million tonnes of CO2 each year; the Rostock plant, 2.86. On the one hand, it's much cleaner and more efficient. On the other, it's still a coal-fired power plant. But at least those somewhat reduced emissions were also exploited 20% more efficiently, on average, and none of the waste products were (reported to have been) dumped into the water or soil.

The Rostock plant, like many others, also sells useable biproducts of burning the coal - such as gypsum for use in construction and road materials - and ships the remaining toxic leftovers mentioned and linked to above overseas, mostly to places like China. So that the Chinese can dump them into their water and soil instead, I guess. 
It also maintains 90 small preserved areas in and around Rostock and is somehow responsible (the English manual really needs to be edited) for protecting a large area of natural saltmarsh as well.

All said and done, it seems like the coal-fired power plants in the developed world should all be at least as efficient as this today, and I think it's a travesty that they're not, considering the fact that we'd still be dumping almost the same unsustainable amount of CO2 into the air as we are today even if they were.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

All Together Now

Here it is, the "Goodbye, Korea!" post!

It's kind of just a compilation of the highlights of December, culminating in the last show we went to.

This is/was Amy and Patrick's band. She did some interesting improvisational stuff - like rolling around on the floor and taking off her shirt -that ended up on the cover of broke 19, the punk zine produced at varying intervals by a professional editor and lifer. 

I'd come straight to the show after getting off work at 9 and was super tired.

Some awesome vegetable stew I made, complete with brown rice crackers and 
pan-roasted pumpkin seeds.

I was told it wasn't snowy and didn't need to bother putting tracks on my boots.
-narrows eyes-

Right, sure. 
This was the first snowfall of last year, on December 1st I think it was.
It was also the first day of my short stint at the Gangnam office, I think. It was.

The City Hall office was so cute and cozy and nice..
But they had to send me all the way to the other side of town to the shitty office instead after mine closed down -_-

Hannes' Christmas package from Germany was obviously great. Little did I know 
that it was but a small taste of what was to come!

My Christmas package was pretty substantial, too. 
I never did make pancakes and ended up giving the maple syrup to Hannes' dad to use on his kartoffelpuffer, because he'd always wanted to try it.

My mom also sent Hannes a Snuggie!

No joke, he had seriously been like, "You know what they should make? A blanket with sleeves. That'd be perfect", and instantly I thought of the shitty late-night infomercial from 15 years ago where the idiotic family at the football game looks like a gathering of druids.

We needed another blanket, too. The floor heating in my apartment was so grossly inefficient that I didn't use it, for fear of racking up bills in the hundreds. Going into my joke of a kitchenette was like going outside minus the wind, because Koreans don't believe in insulation. It got especially third-world that time the lightbulb burned out.

We had to sleep like this and could see our breath in bed.

Hannes' going away party for the unpaid internship he'd started when the one 
he'd come to Seoul for ended turned into this.

Roasted dark chocolate sunflower butter

One more wheat-free order from David's Delicious Desserts - the 
chocolate chip cookies were especially good!

I met Henry and Mr. Kang, the hilarious dudes from the Incheon lumber company 
contract I'd worked all summer, at Everest for a goodbye dinner. 
We had plenty of drinks and a really nice time.

Speaking of drinks, nothing screams "Christmas" like soju-melon milk..

And at last, the end-of-the-year punk show at Badabie.

We had an interesting conversation with Eddie thoughout the night, a cool guy who's one of the scene's fixtures. He'd always struck me as kind of a mystery, though Hannes had met him and learned a fair bit about him very shortly after arriving in Korea when he was sitting on a curb outside a venue and Eddie spilled out of a taxi and plopped down in front of him, already smashed from celebrating his baseball team's win that afternoon.

Eddie always loved running into Hannes because he'd studied linguistics and German, spent some time in Germany, and managed to surprise on more than one occasion with his proficiency. 

I'm making it sound like the guy's dead or something, but actually, he just acknowledged the revolving door fact of life so characteristic of Seoul that we'd almost assuredly never see each other again. I ended up finding him on Facebook by chance - after all that time of not knowing anything about him or getting any contact details - when his wife joined my 'Wheat and Gluten-Free in Korea' group.

A drunken stumble through Hongdae to one of the cheap Korean BBQ restaurants, 
because that's how it goes.

JP and Punkie (who are French and adorable when wasted) were with us, 
and I feel kind of bad that I couldn't get a more flattering picture of them, lol

And of course, Patrick. I ended up seeing him and Amy again when I had them come over the night before we flew out to take apartment stuff I hadn't been able to sell, but this was our last time hanging out.

Like I mentioned in the Seoraksan post, I had some pretty dark and lonely times in Korea, but all of the bad shit that happened and the problems I had were mostly my own fault (which is pretty much true of everyone's problems, right?). It was personal stuff. There are a lot of things about the country I don't like or agree with, and I honestly just don't like nearly all aspects of the culture, but that doesn't make it a definitively bad place, and the negative aspects don't negate the positive ones. Just like any other place, there are some really awesome things, and some really shitty things. Most people are some degree of asshole, but a lot or others are good, kind, normal.

I've read a few reflective blog posts that similarly attempt to describe these kinds of conflicting feelings (about doing the English teaching thing in Korea, specifically), and I think you just kind of had to be there for it to resonate, though the general point is a universal one. 
Maybe these juxtaposing things all conveniently fit into the atmosphere of the place itself, like it's just the predominant motif.
So typical of east Asia is that mixture of ancient and brand spanking new; kids sitting in the shadow of an ornately-painted temple while battling someone in another, equally strange land on their expensive handheld game console, that kind of stuff. Old ladies foraging for roots on the side of the road with kerchiefs tied on their heads and later getting take-out, franchise fried chicken. False exoticism out the wazoo.

Maybe it's because it's so much dramatically opposing shit trying to coexist. Either way, it was immature of me to complain constantly, even if both places I worked for failed and shut down and the last 3 weeks of both contracts were huge clusterfucks. It could've been at lot worse; at least I got paid and still had places to live. 
Even if Korean-style dating to me is mind-blowingly absurd, and Korean weddings are even less personal than things literally mass-produced in factories and sold for slightly-too-high prices. I went on one date with a Korean guy who assumed he could just follow me home and try to get into my apartment, and after that I washed my hands of it, so none of that even applies to me. The cultural differences are too extreme and inherently incompatible for most people, and that's it. 
Not believing in insulation or central heating is something I have to deal with in Japan, too, and I've just had to get used to it. The list goes on and on. 

Moving out for the first time comes with countless unforeseen challenges, and going to the other side of the world obviously isn't one of the easier ways to do it. You can tell yourself you're open-minded, tolerant, and patient, but I think know I failed those tests many times while I lived in Seoul. It's different when it's your everyday life, and not just an amusing week-long vacation where you can write things off and walk away with vague, casual impressions of people, cultures, politics, traditions, and other interactions that've been largely decontextualised.

If nothing else, I firmly stand by the facts that 1) the excellent, simple, cheap public transit, 2) the insanely fast and easy ATM transactions, 3) the bibimbap, 4) the low low pries, 5) the casual outside drinking, and 6) the awesome combination punk/hardcore/other alternative scene are uniquely awesome and amazing. That and it's also one of those super safe places where you can, as a woman, walk down a dark street alone at night and feel no sense of menace or foreboding whatsoever. 
All in all, I would consider going back to visit, especially since I never saw the major vacation spots of Busan or Jeju, and I'd tell most other people to consider doing the same. And I mean that.