Friday, October 30, 2009

Episode 28: In Which DFM Uses Quantum Physics To Understand How To Speak Korean, And Uses A Microwave To Make His Shoes Stop Smelling

Back in College I had to read a book by George Leonard called Mastery. In this concise, to-the-point book, Leonard claims that learning does not take place on a continuous curve, but rather in a quantum fashion, in which time must be spent on a plateau of non-improvement before the next small jump in proficiency can be noticed; the plateau increasing in length with each quantum jump.

My experience with attempting to master climbing has definitely shown me that this is true, however Leonard's model also suggests that at the beginning of the "curve," the plateaus are so small in length that one gets the impression of near constant improvement every day. While this might be the case for learning simple tasks like weight training - didn't everyone feel they would keep getting stronger for ever when they first started, or am I the only one? I have also experienced the near soul-crushing frustration of trying to learn complex tasks such as making an open field tackle in football, or hitting a back-hand on the move in tennis. Fortunately I have another theory as well.

While I was experiencing said frustration in learning how to tackle, my coach shared with me a bit of wisdom that he had learned from his coach. My coach told me that learning a complex task is like trying to poke your finger through the plastic wrap you use to cover a bowl of fruit salad. You push and push and push, but the plastic wrap just stretches and you are still left without any fruit. Then finally, at some unexpected moment, you reach some magic tipping point and your finger bursts through the plastic.

As I look back on my own experiences learning new skills, the Leonard "Quantum Curve" (as I've just now decided to call it) definitely holds true for learning new, simple skills and for mastering both simple and complex skills at which I've already become proficient. So then, why do we all experience the "fruit bowl plastic wrap phenomenon" I described before when trying to learn complex tasks from scratch? And moreover, why am I talking about this in my blog about Korea?

To answer the first question, I believe that complex tasks follow the same rules of the Quantum Curve, but that one or more prerequisite skills need to be mastered before the brain can start the process of mastering the complex skill. This theory seems to be justified by the research I read on the subject as part of my Phys Ed degree (and to think some people consider the BPE "useless"). Unfortunately, the brain tackles learning multiple skills in much the same way Microsoft Windows copies multiple files from your computer's hard drive to a USB drive, and that's why we have the frustration my coach explained using the fruit bowl analogy.

And now the part where this fits into my Korea trip...

Up until this point I have been studying Korean every day for roughly one hour. I wouldn't call my improvement meteoric, but I'm also honest enough to admit (and have said on this blog) that I can see some improvement. My Korean friends are also constantly tell me that my Korean is improving (especially if they haven't seen me or talked to me in some time). Nevertheless, I would never say that I have reached the point of proficiency at which I could call myself "functionally fluent" in my Korean. Sure, I know how to give and receive simple instructions in climbing like "move your left foot up," and some, like myself, would even argue that this is all the communication one needs to live a happy life, but "Talking With Beauties" (as it's known on expat bloggers' websites) will not be inviting me to take part in their rare "Talking With Handsome Men" episodes.

This past week though I seem to have experienced a plastic wrap break through of sorts. While many foreigners living in Korea are too lazy to even learn the hangul (the world's easiest "alphabet" to read), I've said before and I'm saying it again now that I'm still surprised at how every time I meet a new Korean they're still surprised at "how well" I speak my limited Korean. If any Korean came to Canada with the same level of proficiency in English as I have in Korean, you'd have every secretly racist person in the country (or roughly 90% of the population) complaining around their dinner table that these people "should go back to their own country" and that "we don't go to their country to work when we don't know their language." However, this week on two separate occasions I participated in extended introductions with strangers (in Korean) that lasted about 3-5 minutes, and this impressed even me. My grammar was more or less right, and I believe I said most of the words correctly.

One of these conversations took place at Summit Climbing Centre. I had been meaning to go back to Summit for the last two weeks, but as you read in my last post a wedding got in the way and ruined my plans (is there anything weddings don't ruin?), but better late than never I suppose.

Unfortunately, nothing much to report. I met a new friend, Yun Jun, and just like every other time I've been to Summit and met a new friend, this was her first week climbing. (Does Summit actually have any climbers who are regulars?) I spent more or less the whole evening showing her how to move left and right, but that's okay. I actually only come to climb at Summit when I feel like having a rest day, and like most of Summit's new climbers Yun Jun could speak fairly decent English, so we were able to have an enjoyable conversation while we weren't climbing.

Probably the best part of the evening though, was when I paid $0.50 and had my shoes de-odourised. My climbing shoes have been emitting an absolutely abysmal smell for the last six months or so, which has not been helped in any way by the fact I lock them up in an unventilated locker after I sweat in them for three hours while climbing three times a week at Ace. I'm not sure how the deodourising machine works exactly, but Mr. Chang sprayed them with something from a labeless plant sprayer bottle, then he stuck them in a plastic microwave-like machine, and 8 minutes later they came out being much much less smelly. Now I don't have to feel embarrassed when I take my shoes on the subway and it smells like someone peed in my bag.

Speaking of shoes, my roommates bought a new shoe rack to clean up the front entrance. Here's a picture of what the new entrance looks like.

All of these shoes were on the floor of our ridiculously tiny front entrance (about 3 feet by 5 feet). There were so many shoes on the floor, that one of my room mates actually forgot which ones were his and thought that one of his own pair of shoes was mine. However, not all animals are created equal here. Only one of these pairs of shoes are mine. If you consider that each of these shoes averages $50 a piece (most of the shoes in Korea are just knock-offs), that's over $500 worth of shoes for my roommates. My shoes, on the other hand, were $150, but I got them for free, because I used to work at a running shoe store and I sold more than $1000 in one sale to one customer.

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