Ethereality News & Weblog

August 9, 2008

2008 Olympics thougts

Filed under: Audio & Music,Computers & Gadgets,Food,My Life/Musings — Rob Chang @ 7:05 pm

WEBLOG:
Elena and I watched the 4-hour opening ceremony for 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing. We were unsure if something bad was going to happen–some kind of politically related violence, fatal accident from weak structural integrity of the the ‘Bird’s Nest” stadium, or some kind of technical glitch. When the ceremony ended without incident, we both breathed a sigh of relief. The ceremony itself was essentially a celebration and display of Chinese cultural and its contribution to the rest of the world in inventing paper, printing, gun powder, the compass, movable type…etc. The show also emphasized cutting-edge technology and merged high-tech media with human performances. Of course, everything was symbolic and signified China’s wish to advance forward on the global stage. The performances were tightly orchestrated and the scale was impressive (it was all directed by Zhang Yimou, so if you know his films, you could make the connection easily), but ultimately felt contrived and lacking in sincerity. After all, how can you sincerely say you want harmony when you place human rights and freedom at such a low place in your country’s priorities? And make no mistake, beneath the surface of all the glitter, is a firm message from China’s government, and it is simply this: “Don’t Fuck with us. We are willing to spend as much money and manpower as we need to in order to get something done, and we will outdo all of you by sheer size and force. We are the culture that built the Great Wall, and don’t you ever forget it.”

Steven Spielberg was initially an artistic advisor for the ceremony, but eventually quit in protest to China’s lack of action against Sudan’s act of genocide in Darfur. Ai Weiwei, the co-designer of the “Bird’s Nest,” had distanced himself from the Beijing Olympics due to disappointment with the Chinese government and has since been very vocal in his criticism of the Chinese government in his blog. He describes China’s Olympics as a “pretend smile,” and his blog entry about the opening ceremony is particularly scathing (in Chinese only, but maybe you can use Babel Fish to translate the gist of the entry). Then of course, there are the Tibet-related protests that’s plagued the torch passing since day one.

Political elements in the Olympics are nothing new, and has always been part of Olympics history. I commented to Elena that sports is usually the one human endeavor that could bring all races and nations and religions together since it’s all about the physical abilities of human beings, whereas art, entertainment, science…etc all are closely tied with politics, culture, religion, and so on. Obviously, the 2008 Beijing Olympics has been one enshrouded in political issues since the very beginning, as most of the world sees China’s motives as hypocritical. On one hand China wants the world to think it is ready to become a modern country that believes in peace, harmony, brotherhood, and so on, but on the other hand, its track record for human rights has always been a point of severe criticism for the rest of the world, and its citizens for the most part are typically racist, to the point where they had to be instructed to not make jeering gestures at the Japanese during the games.

I personally have mixed feelings about everything I see in China. On one hand I’m known for being very critical about China, but on the other hand, I am Chinese and I’m only critical because I think China can be so much more than what it currently is. I believe in the deep and beautiful cultural heritage, but I despise the modern politics, corruption, lack of human rights, censorship, hubris, and the resulting social climate that birthed generations of people where the majority are apathetic, dishonest, selfish, materialistic, and have terrible work ethic. I write about them because I want to see change, and in my daily life in China I try to help foster change in ways that are not condescending or condemning, but appealing to reason and a sense of moral obligation. Some people will see this as typical American elitist attitude, with me thinking that an American upbringing makes me superior somehow, but I don’t see it that way. I can be just as critical of U.S. foreign policies, it’s puritanical insanity when dealing with the media and news, and other embarrassing aspects of American culture. It is as I wrote in the “About Me” section of this site–“We are only human, fragile and flawed, but in our moments of radiance we are capable of such profound beauty. It is those moments of radiance that makes this life worth living.” I don’t think a person should be labeled as an elitist or “holier than thou” for speaking out. I’m the first one to admit my own faults and in my daily life I strive to become a better human being. We are all in this together and we should help each other grow and become the best version of ourselves. If no one speaks out, what kind of a world would we be living in?

The construction on our new home and my new home recording studio is about to kick into high gear, as we’re pretty much done with all the material shopping and picking out of tiles, cabinets, sinks, bathtub…etc. At this point, all the plumbing, electrical wiring, and interior walls are done, and they have started to lay down some of the tiles already.

It’s been a real struggle trying to figure out the best sound isolation design for the studio, and often the more research you do, the more confused you get, since there are conflicting opinions, false information, obscure resources…etc when using the internet. You also have to be very patient because asking for help in forums can sometimes take a while to get a response that’s actually the kind of answer you could base decisions on. I mentioned before that I have a few books on the subject, and the luckily the author of one of them, Rod Gervais, is a moderator at recording.org, and he’s been quite helpful in answer questions and offering suggestions.

Apparently, high-rise apartments aren’t the best thing for building a home studio, since your concrete floor can only take so much weight, and to properly isolate from air-borne and structural noise, you need a lot of mass, and you need to decouple the isolation floor from the existing concrete one. I’ve been researching and designing for months and months now, and I think I’m getting close to a final design that’ll be approved by the experts that frequent the internet forums.

In the last entry I mentioned the possibility of maybe joining some friends in getting a plot of land to grow our own food, but after some inquiries, it’s simply impractical and too expensive, even if we rent the plot of land. I guess we just have to be extra careful when we navigate the often dangerous world of locally produced food products. My digestive system has always been bad whenever I lived in China. It was bad when I last lived here from 2001 to 2005, and now after almost three months of being here again, all the problems are now back. The last time I had gone to see medical specialists numerous times, but nothing really helped, and I’m wary of what the road ahead would bring.

I’ve always been on the lookout for a good data backup system and efficient yet powerful music librarian over the years, and I think by now I’ve finally settled on two products. In the past I went through numerous commercial and free software, and now I’ve settled on:

Usov Lab Allway Sync (free) (data sync and backup) – I used to use Ghost, but I hated the fact the backing up had to be done offline, and often when dealing with removable drives it was problematic. Also, I hated having to write the entire disk image over every time, so I looked into a software that did online file synchronization and allowed customization for deletion prompt, bi-directional sync, file and folder filters, and so on. I found it in Allway Sync, and I’m really happy with it right now. I’ve been using Allway Sync for about a year now, and it’s actually a free product, until you use it beyond the allowed amount for free usage. I finally decided that I had tested the software enough to have full confidence in it, and ended up paying for a professional license. Now I have over a dozen customized sync jobs setup, and I can sync any folder, file, or directory with a single click (provided you setup the details of the sync). Highly recommended!

J. River Media Jukebox (free) (music librarian) – This is also a free software, but has no limited to usage and completely free. The Media Jukebox is essentially the “lite” version of J. River’s Media Center, which does all media types like video and images and internet TV…etc. The Jukebox is just the music portion of Media Center, and for me, that’s really all I need since I don’t have too much use for a video and image librarian. I use ACDSee Pro in conjunction with XnView (freeware) for my image librarian and I haven’t really felt the need for a video librarian just yet, but I may, since I keep downloading youtube videos of musical performances and it starts to get confusing when there are too many of them. I think I’d at least want a star-rating system for my video collection. If you know a nice freeware that can do it, please contact me.

Oh yeah, back to why I love Media Jukebox. First of all, it’s free, and that’s amazing considering how freaking powerful and efficient and fast it is. I have gone through all the main music librarians that techie geeks rave about–foobar, Winamp, Jet Audio, Deliplayer, itunes, Quintessential Player, Windows Media Player, Creative Play Center, Real One, dBpowerAMP–you name it, I probably have tested it. My main criteria for a good music librarian are the following:

-Number of file formats recognized

-Most flexible sorting methods and search options (by filepath, genre, artist, album, duration, bitrate, file type, rating, replay gain, custom field…etc)

-Advance features (volume match, track information display, tag editing, BPM analyzation, smart playlists, customization of view and color scheme…etc)

-Fast response when searching, navigating various screens, sorting huge collections, operating playback controls…etc.

-Reliable. No crashes and no glitches.

-Intuitive. Does not require digging into the help files to learn about its features.

Over the years, the only software that contained most of the features and qualities I’m after was J. River’s Media Center, and when they released the free version, Media Jukebox, I jumped on it, since I never went as far as to buy Media Center as I didn’t need all its other features outside of music. Media Jukebox is very flexible, powerful, and reliable depending on what’s on your machine (I have it installed on two machines, and on one of them it’s rock solid, and on the other it’s flaky and crashes often, but I’m pretty sure it’s because of the machine). J. river’s products contain all the features and qualities I listed above, and I just can’t stand using anything else now that I’ve gotten so used to the speed, power, and all those features. If you are serious about your music collection, you owe it to yourself to give J. River Media Jukebox or Media Center a spin–they’ll most likely convert you into a loyal user.

Quickie movie review:

Mission to Mars – I actually have seen this film years ago when it first came out, but for the life of me could not remember the majority of the plot, and ended up watching it again to refresh my memory. To me, Brian De Palma is one of those directors who makes films that are either hit or miss, never in the middle. After watching Mission to Mars again, I’m in disbelief that I could have forgotten such a story, since it’s quite idealistic and beautiful in its message, and actually very different from what you’d think of as a De Palma film. I’d recommend it to anyone that is a fan of similar films like 2001: A Space Odessey and Contact.

August 4, 2008

Immediate surroundings

Filed under: Audio & Music,Film/TV/Animation,Food,My Life/Musings,Writing — Rob Chang @ 1:23 pm

WEBLOG:
The wife has posted photos she took of the immediate surroundings of our new home (interior still under construction) in her blog (note the last two photos–those are gigantic “gates” to that residential area, and cost several hundred million RMB to construct, and it serves no purpose other than to show off). Our upcoming new home is basically what’s called an apartment community in the States–with security guards at the gates, hourly patrols, community swimming pool, landscaping…etc. The main difference is that in China, they don’t really have laundry rooms since most families still wash their clothes by hand or some have washers in their homes, and they pretty much all dry them on clothes lines on the balcony (so much so that there isn’t much of a market for dryers in China). We’re so used to the American way of doing things that we actually brought a Maytag dryer with us to use in China!

I don’t know what it’s like dealing with contractors in other countries, but in China, it is a nightmare. You can have the most detailed instructions, sketches, Autocad printouts, chalk markings on the walls with different colors, and whatever else for the construction guys, and they will still get just about everything wrong–like erecting a wall where there’s absolutely no mention of it, or put the wall sockets on the wrong side of the room, or building and installing everything crooked, including your walls, ceilings, and floors. When you confront them with their mistakes and ask them how and why it happened, the answer is always “I don’t know. It seemed the right thing to do at the time.” We asked around and everyone we know who’s had construction work done in their homes shared the same experience–one they wish to never have to live through again. During times like this, you feel completely helpless because it is what it is–a developing country that has not advanced enough in technology, professionalism, knowledge, skill, and standards, and the only thing you can do is to watch them like a hawk and try to prevent and catch mistakes as early as possible, instead of having them tear down entire sections later because they didn’t pass the mustard.

It’s impossible to find good pizza in China. In the minds of the Chinese, Pizza Hut is “real pizza” to them since it’s the only well-known pizza franchise in China. In the States, Pizza Hut is not what we’d call good pizza, but in China they manage to make Pizza Hut even worse by using only a fraction of the necessary ingredients and spices, which results in pizzas that are pathetically bland and scrawny. They don’t even use the necessary herbs that pizzas should have, probably because they’re afraid those foreign herb will taste funny to the Chinese. The average “Chinese pizza” sold elsewhere (than Pizza Hut) are even worse (I didn’t think that was even possible) and use crust that’s basically spongy bread, with barely any tomato sauce, no proper seasoning like oregano or basil, and about 1/4 of the cheese that an average pizza should have. I wonder if I’ll ever come across a good pizza in China. (It’s totally different in other Asian countries. For example, I’ve had excellent pizzas in Malaysia.)

In the city of Fuzhou (where we live), there’s only one Thai restaurant left standing (others have tried and failed), and to call it Thai food would be an insult to Thailand. This is pretty much what’s it’s like for all other cuisines other than Chinese. You want a good steak? Forget it. You want a decent pizza? Better make your own. You want Indian? Better fly to Hong Kong for that. The only places where I’ve had half-way decent “foreign” food in China were in really expensive 4 or 5 star hotels, and they are often so expensive that you could only go every once a while. You’d think that the local Chinese food must be really good since it IS China, right? Not really. You’d find better Chinese food in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, or even in western countries. The problem isn’t about authenticity, it’s about quality and professionalism. As with many products made in China for the local market (you think products made in China for the western market are bad? You should come and see the stuff that are made for the local market), the restaurants and food products here often use cheap and unsafe ingredients, questionable production methods, and lacking quality control. It is so bad that we are now planning with some of our friends to buy a plot of land somewhere outside the city and hire a crew to grow and raise our own food.

Quickie Film/TV show reviews:

The Wire – Season One/Two– I had heard that this show received all kinds of critical acclaim, so I decided to give it a shot. I had mentioned in the past that police dramas on television usually does nothing for me since they are so done to death. You can only stand another dysfunctional drunk detective with a broken marriage and an asshole careerist boss for so long before you flip the channel (or swap out the DVD) for something that’s a bit more inventive. After a few episodes I started to see what the critics were foaming at the mouth about–it’s the unflinching realism, the way the characters navigate a dysfunctional society, and the heartbreak of wasted potential and lives. What surprised me were some of the lighter moments of comedy gold, and those moments are particularly dangerous because I usually watch something while having a meal, and the hilarious moments in the show tend to sneak up on you since you don’t expect it from such a serious show.

August Rush – Despite the sheer amount of crap produced in the entertainment world, I try my best to steer away from anything that I know is probably so bad that it’ll make me want to put a fist through the wall (films that are made to be that bad “on purpose” don’t count), but sometimes my idealistic nature let’s badly reviewed films through because I’ve disagreed with film reviewers in the past, and I’d rather find out on my own if a film with an interesting sounding premise is really as bad as the reviewers say it is. Well, for this film, I agree wholeheartedly with the reviewers. It’s a real stinker. An insult to the audience. A disgrace.

When my wife and I first saw the trailer for this film, we were so excited because it had such a moving premise, and being a passionate musician, the idea behind film immediately resonated with me. After finally getting around to watching the film, we were so horribly disappointed–a perfectly fine premise ruined by a bad writer and a bad director, who while probably had noble intentions, ended up insulting musicians world over with a barely watchable mess. Nothing hurts a film lover more than a squandered premise, because the same premise in the hands of a better writer and director could’ve been so much more, but now the premise has been wasted, unless maybe a remake happens someday.

So why did this film disappoint so much? It boils down to the way the film treats the audience like they are a bunch of musical morons, and in doing so, the film actually insulted anyone who ever loved music and tried hard to become a good musician. If it was a film about quantum physics, where most people haven’t a clue, then fine, go wild, but most households probably have at least one person who’s a musician or know one intimately, so you cannot get away with writing and direction that is not even the least bit grounded in reality.

I get the whole “it’s like a modern fairy tale” thing–I really do, since I’ve written fairy tales myself as a writer, but when writing, there is such a thing as context and tone. If you depict a story that is based in the real world where supernatural occurrences are not part of the premise, then you must write a fairytale that is based on events that are categorized as coincidences that even if they border on being miraculous, they must never be impossible. If you depict a non-supernatural story about a human child that in comparison, makes every single musical genius that’s ever lived look like a bunch of tone-deaf imbeciles, then it’s just a steamy pile of horseshit. Instead of being awe-inspiring, the whole film becomes a giant leap over a big fucking shark (if you aren’t familiar with the term “jumping the shark” just google it).

But what else is new? This is typical Hollywood treatment, where movies depict modern software using GUI that animates like it took a whole render farm to render, or the infamous cliché of “Can we zoom in on that and clean it up” scenes in crime dramas, where Photoshop on crack from the far future does things that should only appear in science-fiction movies, or whenever someone is operating the computer, they are always typing in non-stop streams instead of using a mouse like real humans do. I just can’t for the life of me understand why filmmakers do it. Is it contempt for the audience? Is it genuine ignorance? Do we chalk it up to bad taste?

Then there’s the rest of the film–a giant sobbing mess that tries to be romantic and poetic, but the execution is all wrong and the result is contrived, pretentious, preposterous, and shallow. It’s the imitation brand of romance and poetry that lacks intelligence, substance, and insight–the fast food version of the real deal.

The Ruin – Overall an entertaining horror film, but I just couldn’t stop thinking “Why the hell didn’t they try using fire on them damn vines?”

The Happening – The funny thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s films is that despite what the critics say, you still feel compelled to give them a try–every single one of them. I think the Shyamalan experience is more about the atmosphere, the moments, instead of a typical plot structure, and in that regard, The Happening is much like his other films. I enjoyed it for what it is, and in fact I think I’ve enjoyed all of his films except for Lady In the Water, which IMO had the wrong execution for that particular story.

Final Destination – For the past several years, I have always seen this movie (and its sequels) displayed whenever I go into a DVD store in any country, and finally I broke down and decided to give it a try. It was pretty standard–nothing to write home to anyone about, except the sudden death scenes were great (almost funny in a way).

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