Friday, 25 June 2010

Robocup - The Other World Cup, kicked off

Robotic Organisation; Drunken Head and Sober Robot


When I read stats that Singapore's annual tourist numbers is similar to Malaysia, and about 3 times that of Indonesia, I found it a little surprising. I had problem trying to arrange an itinerary for Andy when he came to Singapore for a weekend. In fact, we ended up taken him out of the country for a day to keep him busy (Diary Entry "Johor Bahru" dated 5 Oct 2009).

I was only surprise because when I thought of tourism, I had the preconceived notion of thinking only one type of tourism, i.e. sightseeing, and that isn't much of that in Singapore. But there are many types of tourism. Medical tourism, for example, where Korea, Thailand, China and Singapore (to the lesser extent) are thriving. People go to these places because their medical regulations are much less stringent than in the West. In cases where patients in the West run out of options, or desperate, they came to these countries to seek medical care as a last resort. Stem cell medicine is one such example. In the West, it's still conducting clinical trials, and it won't be another decade or so before it's approved for treatment. Such treatments are being practised in those countries right now. In other cases where the medical procedures are much less cutting edge, in fact, quite proven, but its low costs in some Asian countries lure face saving people from the West. Routine plastic surgery is one such example. China is having great expectation for its medical industry in the future. Very Great expectation.

This is a global trend in the economic structural changes in labour allocations. Decades ago where low labour costs are applied only to low labour skills. Companies in the West make use of the labour cost in unskilled or at best semi-skilled labour force in the underdeveloped/developing/emerging economies. These days the labour force in the emerging economies are becoming more and more skilled and knowledge based, with software and biotech researchers in India to highly skilled medical practitioners in Korea, Thailand and China.

Singapore isn't one such medical tourist destination, but medical research in Singapore is quite advanced. The UK medical researcher Alan Coleman who cloned Dolly the sheep came to Singapore to do research (but had since left Singapore).

One of the Singapore top tourism (which explain its high total inbound tourist numbers, at least partly) is the hosting of international events ranging from International Air Show, F1 Grand Prix, Youth Olympic Game to APEC (Singapore is its HQ), and many international conferences, symposiums, etc. FYI, Youth Olympics is being held this year in August for the first time. The only reason it hasn't held the main Summer Olympics is because she's simply doesn't have the financial clout. Singapore is chosen for international event organiser because it many assets: political neutrality, political and social stability, comprehensive infrastructures, well developed hospitality industry, centrally located geography in SE Asia, an experienced organiser of international events, an international transport hub, and last but not least, its high percentage of English speaking population (about 70%, the highest in Asia bar none). Oh, did I forget to mention clean, green and low crime.
Well, I guess it isn't a secret that Singapore is an orderly society, probably one of the most orderly in Asia, second maybe only to Japan. That orderliness and efficient organisation skills already become apparent the minute you landed and got into the airport. You can quite easily get through the airport in less than 20 minutes.

Due to this central location and thus serves as transportation hub, many tourists use it as stop-over (or lay-over - a more risque term that Yanks prefer).

The one international event that got me excited is "Robocup - The Other World Cup". This is the tag line for the sport event. I was thrilled (as thrilled as a jaded traveller can get) not because it's a 'sport', because it isn't a sport. I love the novelty. Robots playing soccer, what's there not to like? I have never known about this, let alone watching it. When I saw the ads while I was riding MRT on the weekend, it grabbed my full attention. I'm there! Try to stop me.

I was there the first day, but it did stop me with a bad case of flu for the next 3 days. I had to be confined to bed. I think a sad face is called for :-(

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Many countries participate in this competition ranging from Thailand, Iran, Mexico, India, HK, China to, of course, the host country. It goes without saying that the usual suspects of the developed economies of Japan, Germany, USA, etc would also be there.

The first day (when my flu just reared its ugly head) I watched some Junior Robot Dance competition. These kids, like most kids, like stuffed toys. Except that their toys were stuffed with hard, clunky metallic robots instead of the usual soft, fluffy cottons.

This is the China South-West Team for the Junior Dance Competition.
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Notice the two tigers (dressed in gold and blue) doing a split. Other robots in this team also did other pretty impressive wrap moves even for a human (one of the move was involving spins on its mechanical stomach). These moves are the more impressive for robots (one day, the reverse is true).

This team won an award for The Best Dance Choreography. Well deserved with those fancy, funky, groovy moves.
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This is the Aussie Team called Robo Rockers for the Junior Dance Competition.
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This is the Sweden Team (Don't know if they called themselves the Blues Brothers) for the Junior Dance Competition.
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This is a Robocup Middle Size Robot League Competition playing in a 18x12m indoor field.
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Kicking the ball from the sideline.
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Action around the goal area.
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A goal is scored by the blue team!
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Blue and red teams fighting to gain control of the ball.
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This is a Junior Robot Competition field, where the robots are very large compare to the field.
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Humanoid Robot League Competition is very popular, for good reason. It's very packed. Photographing it was a hard task. This is the Final. I missed all the Quarter's and Semi's because of my flu. Both the red and blue teams in the final for the Humanoid Robot League were Germans. The German robots aren't the best looking, but the best technically.
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A Humanoid Robot goalie. Noticed its right 'hand', it's different from other players. It's designed to block the ball. Noticed the head band, too. Very serious business.
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Notice one of the Humanoid Robot has fallen to the ground. It happened frequently with their wobbly gaits (not too dissimilar from a toddler). Here's the main difference between watching a game of Humanoid robot and Human soccer. When a human soccer player falls, it's followed by a gasp or a hush from the audience. When a humanoid robot falls, audience would bust into a roar of laughter. It's quite funny to see them fall. Apart from the laughter, the animated response from the audience is as authentic as a real soccer game: cheering, clapping, and shouting. The audience anticipation is very energetic. I guess Singaporeans, like most Asians, love a soccer game. Be it metallic or flesh.
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This is a competition between human and Middle Size Robot League. The human are, I guess, officials of the Robocup. This is not simply the officials having fun, winding down after the serious competitions. Not entirely. The mission statement of the Robocup is:
By 2050, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the game, complying with the official rule of the FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.

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Don't know how ambitious that statement is. Since we're a fair way from 2050, and as far as technology is concerned, 40 years is light years away. So we don't expect the robots are going to win this game this year. Not yet. This reminds me of playing chess on the computer. In the mid-or late 80's when the computer chess first appeared on the PC, I remembered how slow the computer played, and how easily I was able to beat it. I guess this is in a similar state of affair with the robot soccer players to date. But in 1997 IBM Deep Blue beat the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov (But he accused IBM for cheating). The point is, 10 years earlier, you couldn't imagine asking a world chess champion to play against a machine at all.

A handicap is given to the robot to level the playing field.
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This soccer player is wise enough to wrap himself in padding to protect himself. This is the handicap I'm talking about - the human are very nervous around the robots. You wouldn't want to run or ram into the metallic robots while playing. If you do, it's a handicap in a different sense of the word.

Can't wait until a day when the robots beat human. We can't lose because if the robots won, we triumphed in our technological progress (the brain is quicker than the foot). Don't know if I live to see the day.


The Futuristic Life of Mine
My body would have died off by then, but my head would be kept alive by immersing in a jar of formaldehyde sitting on a robotic body. My brain will send electrical signals that control its movement. When I sneeze, I'll tell it to wipe my jar dry. This way, I'll be drinking alcohol all day as well (CH2O is alcohol. I just need to top it up regularly to avoid suffocation). 2 birds with 1 stone. Finger crossed (I won't have fingers then, but my robotic arms will cross it for me).
"Exterminate! Exterminate!" The robots chanted in unison.
Some body call Dr. Who, quick!
Oh! What a delicious dilemma!
Glug, glug...

"Number 5, Can we go to liquor store?", I said.
"Yes Master," My body robot replies in a feminine voice that resembles my dearly departed wife, whom had died a long time ago. I can't even remember when. Sometimes in the 24th century, I guess. She's called Number 5 because she's the 5th robot body I've replaced.
"I'm thinking of replacing this formaldehyde with Merlot" I said.
"Merlot will obscure your vision, Master," Number 5 said.
"I don't care. I'm sick of drinking formaldehyde. Besides, reds will help me to see the world in rose coloured. Sick of it!" I fumed, "Look at my face. Don't I look sick? Merlot will make my face flushed with healthy colour."
As I admire myself from the distorted reflection from the glass jar due to the refraction of the formaldehyde, I look not too bad at all for a 305 years old man. My complexion easily let me pass myself as a very young and spunky 125 years old, gives or takes 20 years.
"Yes, Master." She replied.
"And stop calling me Master." I grunted, "Call me Maestro!"
"Yes, Maestro." Number 5 uttered it in an Italian accent.
"Very funny. Number 5. Very funny." I said.
"Wouldn't you prefer a nice bottle of Italian Chianti? It is also a red wine." Number 5 said, still in an Italian accent. The S.O.B.
"You should be a comedian. Number 5. But keep your day job. When you put the jar on my bed table at night. You can go out and work as a stand-up in a night club, How would you like that? I'll even ask Jerry Seinfeld to lend you his head for the job," I said in a sarcastic tone. "How about it, eh?" I said in an Italian voice with what I imagine is a typical Italian gesture with my robot arms. Number 5's arms are still under my control.
Number 5 always knows when to shut up.
And so we merrily moving into a liquor store on a travellator that moving at a speed of 45 km/hr.

As the formaldehyde is draining from my jar, I gasped, "Quickly, I'm suffocating! Quick!!!!"
Glug, glug.....glug, glug....
"Ummmm....Merlot......"
glug, glug....
I choked as I gasped for Merlot.
"Easy. Maestro. Easy" She steadied the glass jar with her - or should I say my - hands.
After a few gulps, a feeling of relaxation washed over me, "I'll try Chianti next time. The store owner recommends 2288 vintage. It costs 200 ounces of gold per litre of Merlot, but life's too short to be on the cheap all the time. I'll just have to give up smoking for 6 months to make up the shortfall."
I can't stay mad at her, this rust bucket, in oil or in grease, in bug or bug-free mode, till death do us part.
We live happily ever after. Until her batteries are dead.
Glug, glug...clink, clink...glug, glug........clink, clink, glug........
Ummmm..."you feel good, Number 5"...glug glug....

P.S. The Futuristic Life of Mine was written under the influence of alcohol (may have been Merlot), and by a hand that's not entirely under my control.



Saturday, 5 June 2010

Globalization of Hollywood - Part 1

Looking at the kitschy Oriental Pearl Tower from across the Huangpu in Shanghai led me to think about Hollywood.

Nothing can alter, popularise and capture the imagination of a city than having it appeared in a pop movie. In the 50's, King Kong is clinging to the side of the Empire State Building in NY. This is one Hollywood icon embracing a city icon in the financial centre of the world in that era. Fast forward to the 2010's, we have Godzila fighting scene at the site of the Oriental Tower in Shanghai. This is one Japanese film icon embracing a city icon of the financial centre of China. Coincidentally - maybe not - these 2 movie icons also share many things: 'monster', gargantuan size, etc.

Godzilla is, I suspect, Japanese way of dealing with the tragedy of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. In a sense, US created Godzilla.

Movies in general, and Hollywood exports in particular always reflect zeitgeist of the world. Before the 1970's where globalisation hadn't quite taken hold the extent it does now, most Hollywood films looked into its navel for materials (and there's only so much you can get out of your navel). As globalisation starts, Hollywood studios looked into other navels for inspirations, and grapple with more and more global themes.

Globalisation had occurred a long time ago, to different degrees. The first globalisation grew with the Silk Road that connects the Roman Empire in the West and Chinese Han Empire in the East.

Globalisation got a further boost with the discovery of Americas. In modern time, before the Fall of Berlin Wall, the process couldn't truly be called globalisation when the sizable Communist Bloc wasn't part of it. It should better be called, semi-globalisation. We're now living in a TRULY globalised world with virtually no countries are untouched by it. All the old enemies of Cold War are turning into gay buddies and trade partners. Even Taiwan's KMT and PRC are getting along. With the signing of ECFA, the cross-straits ties are closer than ever. I think this ECFA is PRC's tool for the eventual unification of Taiwan (in political terms, not in CCP party rhetoric). The detente of PRC and KMT is more amazing than those of USA and Russia, because with the collapse of USSR, we're dealing with a 'democractic' Russia. Taiwanese government had realised that even their major political backer of USA is now hobnobbing with China, they'd better kowtowing too. In short, Uncle Sam had switched sides, and recognised PRC (instead of ROC as it did before). USA is one of the last country to switch their recognition from ROC to PRC in a domino effect. Taiwan has never been more isolated. In fact, became none-existence as a country in the eyes of the world governments. As a sign of respect, let's bow our heads for a 3 minutes silence (no peeking please).

The wars between major powers nowadays are trade wars, which is far preferably than military wars. Making money (and love), is so much better than making war.

Ok, back to Hollywood. James Bonds movies is one franchise where the enemy is usually a country. You can find out about the twin goals of Hollywood market, and US enemy by watching James Bonds movies. It's true that James Bond is a British secret agent, but can you think of a single major enemy that isn't shared by these 2 countries post WW2? These 2 countries are so similar in cultures, political ideologies, and history (at least since WW2), they're even united by their first names 'United' that UK might as well be a state of USA (as far as foreign policy us concerned). Uh oh, hope I don't step on some British toes. I think you Pommies agree, if not grudgingly.

Let's put it another way, Bond franchise shows the most important geopolitical concern of the West/UK/USA of the day. It's a English spy franchise produced by US Hollywood studio. Especially in the Cold War era, it has to express the hopes, fears, and the geopolitical concerns of USA, and Bond films delivered exactly that.

Here are a few more examples where marketing are far more important than reflecting reality. In Star Trek's franchise, there are a number of senior Japanese crew members (e.g. Mr. Sulu) serving on the USS Enterprise, and even Koreans are present in Star Trek Enterprise. There's not a Chinese in sight. In reality (of an imaginary world of The Federation), logically the chances of a Chinese serving on the Enterprise would be much higher than either Japanese or Koreans going by the proportion of Chinese in the population of the planet earth. Never mind that China is the 3rd country in history to have space walk[1] carried out by their taikonaut (first it was USSR's cosmonaut, followed by USA's astronaut. What about the ESA's Mars 500 Project (stage 3) that consists of 3 Russians, 1 French, 1 Italian, and 1 Chinese? And Chinese is launching it first space station in 2020). But the movie producers of Star Trek didn't foresee any opportunity of selling their wonderful creations into China, especially during the filming of the original Star Trek series when China was viewed as non-existent at best, and the ideological enemy as worst during the Cold War. Japan, at the time, however, is a rising industrial power like China today. Translation, big market for its films.

Lost - TV seriesFor that reason, movies with international cast like the TV drama series "Lost" (2004 - 2010) now includes Chinese as well as Koreans. No Japanese[2], but "Heroes" (2006 - 2010) more than take up that slack. Last time when I was in Japan, the TV commercial showing so much of the Japanese character Hiro in "Heroes" that I though it was an ads for a Japanese film (if I didn't know any better). Hiro does play an important role in that TV series. Look at his name (Hiro) - a veiled title role.

Unlike "Lost", the attempt of "Heroes" to reach global audience is a bit (shamelessly) transparent with its international cast (not too mention that it jumped onto the bandwagon of global success of "Lost"). The international ensemble cast of "Lost", on the other hand, fits in organically with the narratives because the characters are the passengers of an international airline flying between Sydney and Los Angeles. These 2 cities have some of the most diverse ethnic communities on earth (maybe the MOST multicultural). In fact, the story demands an ethnically diverse casting. If Hollywood includes the Chinese market, surely the Indian market would follow suit. Whenever Chinese economy is mentioned, India isn't far behind. Look at the coining of the term Chindia. Unlike "Heroes" where the Indian played an important role, there's no Indian in "Lost". Hang on, there is. Sort of. Naveen Andrews is an Indian Brit who played an Iraqi soldier Sayid Hassan Jarrah, which happens to be his most well known role in his career (so far).

"2012" (2009) is an interesting movie to study the Hollywood's reach for the global markets and issues of globalisation. For the fist time, this is a disaster movie where USA isn't ALONE the saviour of the world since WW2. But it's an international co-operative efforts that saves the world. Maybe Hollywood is sick and tired of showing Uncle Sam as the world's regular saviour. Nah, get real. It's more like the global audience is sick of Hollywood showing that. Like "Lost", the international cast and backdrop is integral to the story. The Ruskies are no longer just evil commies, but belongs to the democracy club. They're one of us now. Let paint them in a better light, shall we? More importantly, Hollywood movies are now exporting to Russia. In "2012", the Yank's family is flown to safety in the huge Russian aircraft Antonov 500. It was the cooperation between the Yank and Ruski pilots that save both the Russian and American families. The real life parallel? Instead of having a space race as in the Cold War where both countries tried to outdo each other, Russia and USA is cooperating in space program nowadays to save themselves both a lots of mullah and elbow grease. Hollywood likes the Ruskies so much, they give the Russian pilot Sasha the heroic role, who bravely and selflessly scarifies himself to save the passengers. In fact Sasha is the only TRUE hero in the movie. Bravo, Sasha! Dasvidania, Sasha!

2012 the movieThe Ark is built in Tibet because it's the Roof of the World. If they expect a Biblical flood that going to inundate the world, the highest point on Earth seems like a logical place to put it. Also, such remoteness would help to minimise security leaks (which the governments willing to kill to keep it a secret in this film. Would be a real challenge to keep it out of Julian Assange's website though). And what's more, where else in the world where one finds a large enough labour force to build this mammoth ship? Where else but the factory of the world, where they build all the iPhones, and Canon cameras in the world, and just happens to be the world's largest shipbuilder? Last but not least, the inclusion of Tibet would also add a spiritual dimension to the narrative (even if it's quite shallow. Better shallow than nothing. Just look at the movie poster. Other 2012 disaster movies got Mayan Prophecy, this one got Tibetan people. Close enough). So it's a perfect candidate. China is thus worked seamlessly into the story. Russia, however, is not. But Hollywood wants the Russian market too, and make good for all the Russian bashing done in the past. "If we can be friends in space. We can be friends on earth. Till death do us part!" Very touching...in a gay sort of way. Nice.

If there's - it should have - a message coming out of "2012", it's that many of today's global issues could only be solved by international efforts, not by any one country. The giant solar storm obviously represents global warming, and the Ark symbolises green technology. Another message is that to fund the Ark project tickets were sold to the super rich, does this a comment that the worst victims of climate change are the poorest, while the rich nations can simply pay their way out? I may be reading too much into the story...but then the writer(s) may have that intention all along.

Here's some other reasons why USA isn't the saviour of the world in this movie. If the solar storm symbolises global warming, and because USA has been dragging its feet in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, instead of showing leadership as it once were in many issues. So if this movie portrays USA as saviour, the audience who sees this symbolic link would jeer, not cheer.

The recent world's financial tsunami that was sent to the rest of the world came from the epic centre of Wall Street. Except this tsunami was created artificially, fuelled by pure greed that built on the house of cards that's the housing bubble. It produced the worse economic recession since the Great Depression, which also created by Wall Street, NOT coincidentally. In fact, both crisis were caused by the bursting of asset bubbles. The only difference was that in the 1920s, it was a stock bubble, and this time a housing bubble. It's very hard just now to hail USA as the saviour of the world. Also because of the economic tight spot is in, it has no choice but to relinquish many of the leadership roles it assumed previously when it lived in more prosperous time. Lybia is a case in point. "You Frenchies can be the head of this operation. I'm too busy saving myself".

After WW2, we lived in a bipolar world (of the West Vs Communist Bloc) much of the 2nd half of the 20th century. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we left with the unipolar world with USA being the singular superpower for the final decade of the 20th century - a coda for Uncle Sam. With the rise of the economic powers of many developing/emerging economies - especially that of the BRICS - the 21st century world is entering into a multipolar world.

During the Cold War, USA saw itself as global Messiah, saving citizen of the world from the scourge of Communism. But in this multi-polar world, and with the US economic clout on the relative decline, an international co-operations seems like a more realistic modus operandi. "2012" in particular, and Hollywood movies in general, are reflecting this New World Order. Yep, this is what globalisation should be about, not just people doing business around the world, but solving problems together, saving the world together (from terrorism, financial crises, climate change, trade protectionism, drug and human trafficking, pandemic diseases, denulearisation, meteor striking the Earth, invasion of extremely cute and cuddly but deadly ETs, etc, etc, etc). None of these problems could be tackled by any one country alone, no matter how much good will or power it has. With all this in mind, it's getting harder to buy into the idea of US exceptionalism. Of course, if the saviour happens to be Tugg Speedman in "Tropic Thunder" (2008), who saved the world from disasters similar to "2012" 6 times in the "Scorcher" franchise, I would be the first to line up for ticket.

Some directors in Hollywood - in fact the director of "2012" - defended themselves that the "pro-China" stance in their movies aren't there to capture the Chinese audience because the Chinese market is too small. Small compares to USA, which is the biggest. 2 things needs to consider even if the Chinese market is small. One, it's small, for now. The key words often associate with Chinese market are 'fast growing'. Two, China seems to indispensable to the story. But the most interesting things is the directors' reply that they don't deliberately include China into the story because the market isn't big. Well, the only conclusion one can draw is that they would HAVE reason to include China when their market is big enough. Does the director realises what he's saying? Oops! Sorry, no 2nd take!

Adding China into a movie doesn't just increase sales to China, but to all countries. Who isn't talking (or yapping) about China today? Movies about the African country of Chad likely won't sell, movies about China do. China, like USA, love her or hate her, you can't ignore her. I guess, directors, being artists at hearts, hate to be seen as selling out to the mighty Dollar (or Yuan). Big time directors have to bow to market forces too not so much because they have to pay rents or put their kids to colleges, but because they have to answer to studios who bankroll their projects. The studios in turn have to answer to shareholders (investment folks like you and me) who invest in the studios, and expect returns for their dough. Directors shouldn't need to feel embarrassed for given into the market forces. It's capitalism at work (unless you prefer Communism, then all you get to watch are propaganda movies).

If the title of saviour of the world is to be bestowed onto a country, it should be China. Hear me out. She saved the world from the Asian Currency Crisis by biting the bullet and resisted competitive currency devaluation. This hurt Chinese economy in the short term, but ultimately benefited everyone in the longer term. It was a dirty job, but somebody got to do it.

During the financial meltdown of 2008, having a growth engine the size of China would at least help to stabilise the crisis from sliding into something similar to the Great Depression. No matter how you look at it, the world is better off in 2008 with China doing what it did. To expect Hollywood to portray a communist state as a saviour of the world in their movies, get a grip of reality! It's already making a great concession by not painting China as a evil commie as Hollywood had been doing throughout the Cold War. So the closest thing would be having a movie that shows everyone is trying to save the world in a joint effort (even if the way they go about it is anything but honourable).

Last but not least, China saved the world when they adopted the One-Child policy some 30 years ago. People in the West view the policy being very draconian to the Chinese. The condom-banning Catholics[3] find this policy inconceivable (pun fully intended). Yes, it's very tough for the Chinese, but it benefits the rest of the world. This is Chinese sacrifice to the world. With world's population reaching 7 billion this year, the exponential growth of the population is unsustainable. With increasing population and therefore more competitions for resources, things are becoming more expensive, wars become more common place. And with more people living on earth, more greenhouses gases will be produced, and with greater deforestation due to more people demanding timbers, this is double whammy for the global warming. No one single policy any country had done so far to reduce greenhouse gases more than the One-Child policy. Sure, China is doing this to save China. With the world more globalise than ever, and China makes up 1/5 of the world population, any positive impact on China will have positive impact on the world, and vice versa. According to statistician, if China didn't enforce the One-Child Policy in the last 30 years, there would be extra 450 million mouths to feed (about 20 times the population of my 2nd home of Australia). There would be 450 million people demanding crude oil (no, you don't need to drive to use crude oil. The largest consumption for crude oil is in the production of food), timbers, everything. These 450 million babies will grow up and have babies.

Some scientists are suggesting that with population reaching tens of billion (which won't take long), wars, famine, global warming will eventually kill billions on earth, thus bringing balance back to earth. Nature is always cruel (watch some nature documentary if you aren't convinced), and destruction is usually the natural course to restore balance. When we're strangling our mother earth with unsustainable population, the earth will be choked to death, and take us with it. Human is like strangler fig tree that lives by killing its host - the mother earth. After all, we can't live without the earth. Well, we can live outside earth by colonising space, but it will take a long time to get there. It's a question of race against time between the successful colonisation of space and the total depletion of the earth's natural resources. OR, we can slow down population growth to buy more time. Even better, reverse it. But this isn't a good solution either, because this implies the greying of population. But a less bad solution. Well, no easy solutions.

Of course, at times, Uncle Sam is a reluctant saviour. At other times, USA jumped into the role with both feet. You know what they say, with great power comes great responsibility. And being the most powerful country, Uncle Sam is simply expected to take up that baton/torch/stick/M-16. Now, China is expected, at least from US point of view, to share that baton (if not simply hand it over). Like US of A, China doesn't really like the extra weight of responsibility. And China has been using its status as a developing economy - as true as that is - to dodge that bullet. Having said that, China does provide the largest UN peacekeeping force. And China is probably, no definitely, the ONLY developing country who sends financial and technical aids to other developing countries.

Ok, I'm talking about common responsibility, not national self-interests. But with globalisation getting so cozy (like the 3 sumo wrestlers in the Mitsubishi truck TV commercials in Sydney), the line between common responsibility, and national interests are increasingly blurred. Especially with all these forming of economic, and geopolitical blocs, if one falls, the whole domino effect will transpire. E.g. this is the reason why EU is so concerned about the Greek debt crisis. Greece has a small economy, and a small country in any sense of the word. What people are concerned is the contagion effect. Nothing more fearful than the contagion of fear. Anything happens in the world is everybody's business in the globalised world.

It isn't the weight of responsibility that China wants to shake off. China has always minding its own business. Its ancient history shows that. Even in the recent history, during the Mao Era, China closed itself off completely for 3 decades. Since the Opening-Up Policy in 1978, China's foreign policy is taking the non-interference stance. It's a step up from total isolationism to non-interference. But be careful what you wish for, Uncle Sam; China may take up that role one day - not today - and you may not like what you ask for. Actually, China is already doing that in the UN by voting on resolutions as P5 member , and ended up cheesing off the Capitol Hill. Abstention Vote was what PRC used to do during the quiet , isolated Mao Era. When Washington asked Beijing to take up the world leadership role, it means to play ball with them. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Well, PRC is too blind to get those subtle signals. Selective blindness, I think that's what it is. I sometimes miss those signals too when I don't like what I see. If you know what I mean...nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

In the bipolar Cold War where USA is the sole leader of the West, and the brief unipolar world of the 1990s when USA was the sole superpower of the world, in both cases, this encouraged Hollywood to stick the formula of a singular hero(ine) saving the world. With the multipolar world of the 21st century, Hollywood answered the call with "Lost" and "Heroes". The latter TV series is titled "Heroes", plural. Not "Hero". The heroes/heroines all have to cooperate to save themselves. Similarly, "Lost" has many heroes/leaders, each exert their influences and have their followers. At the end, they all have to work together for the common goal.

Not surprisingly, it's cinematic movies that blazed a trail for the TV Land. Look at some of the big budget, popular franchises that started in the zero hour of the 21st century: "X-Men" (2000), "Ice Age" (2002), "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (2003), "The Incredible" (2004), "Fantastic Four" (2005), "Madagascar" (2005), "The Watchmen" (2009), "The Expendables" (2010), "The A-Team" (2010), "Super 8" (2011), "The Smurfs" (2011), "The Avengers" (2012), "Chronicle" (2012), "Rise of the Guardians" (2012), etc. These all have multiple heroes that confront with conflicts among themselves. There're many more movies produced than the above list suggests as they're franchises with many sequels. "Harry Potter", "Kung Fu Panda", and similar franchises also fall - albeit more loosely - into this category.

These (super)heroes/(super)heroines need to overcome their differences to achieve the common goals. The UN is increasingly playing an important role as an arena to resolve international conflicts. "The Expendables" is an interesting example in that it's both directed and acted by the slight speech slurring Sylvester 'Sly' Stallone (try to say the last 6 word phrase really quickly without slurring). He's best remembered in "Rambo", and "Rocky" franchises where he played the typical singular American hero who saves the day in the pre-21st century. This is especially true in "Rambo" where he's pretty much a one-man army. But in "Expendables", he's working in the 21st century mode of operation (or military ops). Instead of Team America, Hollywood is reflecting Global Village with many Chieftains.

It's also probably true that the movies with multiple heroes tend to be complex with intricate interactions between characters, and Hollywood didn't think the audience was sophisticated enough before, thus too risky to make them until now.

Majority of those multi-heroes franchises have PG rating, I think that's good to prepare our kids for the 21st century Global Village. A team player. An change in emphasis from competition to cooperation.

Putting geopolitics asides, the bottom lines is that increasingly the foreign markets and revenues for Hollywood movies are greater than the domestic markets (as I pointed out in painfully great length that geopolitics and market shares are the same thing. So can't really say "putting geopolitics asides").

What I meant is, let look at market shares figures alone, at this point, it's about 65/35 split. If - no when - the trends continues, it won't take long to see 90% of their revenues coming from overseas. And the largest single export market for Hollywood would be China (despite piracy). In fact, many predict China would be the biggest movie market by 2020. So if Hollywood isn't making movies for foreign markets, they're not into the business of making money.

For some studios or films, their very success already 100% depending on worldwide markets.

Having said that, America consists of 35% minority, but it was the overseas audience, not domestic audience that causes Hollywood to put minority American faces into their movies. This is understandable, because Hollywood don't have to please the local minority audience because they rather watch Hollywood than foreign movies, in general. In a sense, the globalisation of Hollywood films is simply given its domestic multicultural audience a louder voice.

Hollywood always has worldwide markets. It's just in the last decade or so, the acceleration of an increase in foreign markets due to the rapid rise of many developing economies are unprecedented.

This is why we accuse of Hollywood doing its bid in the American cultural imperialism. For those people who are yelling that this rise of American penetration into more worldwide markets equates to the ever rise of American cultural imperialism. Think about this. Notable Americana like American Graffiti (1973), On the Waterfront (1954), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) are unlikely to be made today. To ensure successful worldwide markets, Hollywood will make movies that are appeal to the different cultures of the world.

Better yet, instead of injecting cultural themes that appeals to specific country, why not make something that appeal to all cultures. There's such a thing. Make movies that contain universal values, rather than American values. In a sense, the success of Hollywood over movies of other countries is because Hollywood's knack of turning out movies that have universal appeal due to its universal values.

Take Mulan(1998), which is based on a Chinese story. If it was made by Chinese, it would be about filial piety. People of other culture wouldn't understand it. If it implies absolute obedience to your parents, some audience of the West would find it distasteful. Indeed, the Confucian idea of filial piety does demand obedience (although not too much in the story of Mulan). Hollywood looks at it from the angle of a daughter's love for his father and her country. This is a indeed a universal values that people all over the world can relate to. Much simpler and more powerful idea than filial piety.

Indeed, globalisation of Hollywood implies the universalising of cultural values. Despite all the cultural differences among peoples, we all share some universal values that bind us all together.

And Hollywood has always been doing that. Before, it was Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, Ali Baba, today it's Kungfu Panda. It's Americanised version of imported stories from somewhere else.

So with the globalisation of Hollywood, Hollywood could no longer just sell American values, but universal values that shared by all. With globalisation (and Hollywood's adaption to it), American cultural imperialism is on the decline because most of us were already very Americanised in the 2nd half the 20th century. The success of Hollywood is that they're not only telling their own stories, but other people's stories as well. And they're telling more and more of other people's stories. The question of American cultural imperialism is a mixed picture at best.

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[1] I'm talking about doing space walk independently as many countries who has no space flight ability have sent their countrymen to do space walk in international joint ventures up in space station.

[2] "Lost" adds a Japanese into the international cast in Season 6, soon after I wrote this diary entry, just trying to make me eat my own words. Good one. Get Lost! But also thanks! For adding weight to my argument.

"Lost" is an apt title. The characters are a bunch of LOST souls before the plane crash. After they get LOST in the island, they FOUND themselves. Remember the song "Amazing Grace"?
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Amazing, isn't it? Hope I didn't spoil for those who hasn't watched it.
"Lost & Found" may be a more accurate title, but then it gives away too much, thus its mystery is LOST.

[3] Ok, the Pope lifted the ban in Nov 2010. Better late than never. We need fewer people. Not more.



Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Shanghai - Day 14 - Expo Site

The Last visit to the 'The Arse End of the World'

sunny 27 °C
                     
Since the waiting lines in the Expo to pavilions we want to visit were so long, thought we would start later in the day. From our last visit, we saw that the queues are much shorter after 7pm. The best strategy would be to take photos outsides the pavilions in he late afternoon, had dinner, and then queue up for one of our short-listed must-visit pavilions like China (host country), Japan (Expo expert), Saudi Arabia (being the most expensive pavilion to build), and Denmark (with her iconic Little Mermaid coming on all the way in a ship, not below it).

We each had our fave activity in the Expo: mine was photography, and Atta was collecting stamps for her passport from different pavilions. By 5 to 6pm, most of the small pavilions would have short queues with waiting times under 10 mins. So we were able to divide and conquer as many as 8 pavilions in less than an hour as she zipped in and out of pavilions for stamps, while I snapped photos away like there was no tomorrow. Well, I won't be coming back tomorrow.

I noticed about the curious placing of DPRK and Iran pavilions that cosied up together. As far as I can see, pavilions are placed according (roughly) to their actual geography. So Japan's is placed next to ROK's; and HK's sits right next to Macao's and China's; the Scandinavia's are all cuddled up in the same area; and Australia's quite appropriately locates between Asian and European Zones. It's understandable that DPRK is separated away from ROK to avoid any potential diplomatic awkwardness (we don't need a line of soldiers patrol along the shared border of their pavilions). But putting DPRK next to Iran is somewhat interesting. Geographically and culturally, they're nowhere near one another, but they share the same political hot potato - being the two 'rogue states' that develop nuclear weapon capability under the protest of the big boys. You can say they are brothers-in-nuclear-arms. One might argue that Iran is nuclear aspirant, not a state with full fledged nuclear power facility. Not yet. Another commonality is that both of these countries are political thorns on the USA's side. Their 'holy' mission is driving US up the wall (Not the Berlin Wall, which had crumbled to bits and pieces now sitting in some museums and homes of curio collectors. Not The Great Wall, which now is invaded by hordes of foreigners, arming with cameras up to the hilts, shooting everything in sight. But there's always a wall for US to go up).

I decided to actually visit these two pavilions. This is as close to going to these countries - especially DPRK - as I can ever hope. DPRK can't really afford financially to build a pavilion (it's quite small and Spartan), but can't afford not to politically. PRC is just about the only important ally/comrade/big bro that DPRK has left. I did feel sad wondering around this pavilion, but not as much as I feel for her people. It's impossible to remain unmoved. Iran, on the other hand, is quite spacious with air-cons going full blast, thanks to its abundant oil wells.

Speaking of placement of pavilion, what about Taiwan Pavilion? Quite unimaginable 20 years also (but then the same can be said about the Shanghai Expo or the Fall of Berlin Wall 20 years ago. What a different world we lived in). Unlike HK or Macao Pavilions, which cozied up right next to the China Pavilion. The Taiwan Pavilion is some distance from China or HK and Macao Pavilion, but still in plain sight of them. This Taiwan Pavilion position describes the relationship between Taiwan and PRC nicely. It's not very remote, but there's some distance between them. In the last 10 years, there's a gradual thawing of tensions across the Taiwan Strait. This melting accelerated in the last 3-5 years by the increasing warming of relationship, which culminated in the signing of ECFA pact (which post dates this post on 29-6-2010).

Another pavilion I should mention to some of my mates in Sydney is my visit to the Vietnam Pavilion. In contrast to the queue that matches the length of the Great Wall outside Japan Pavilion, the Vietnam Pavilion right next door has no queue this time of the day. That suits me dandy. I went in to check it out. A musical performance was in preparation, and I haven't seen most of these traditional Vietnamese instruments. Shame on me, I know. And when they started to play, its fast and furious tempo knocked my socks off (not that I was wearing any). It was so absolutely unexpected, and quite an eye - I mean - ear opener. In the (first) 16 years of growing up in Vietnam, I heard nothing but slow traditional Vietnamese music that sung by a heart broken old lady on a single stringed instrument (didn't know the name. Shame, shame, shame. I know). In fact, I didn't even know such tempo can exist in Vietnamese folk music. The slow, melancholic music that I heard in all those years was probably the requiem to mourn a country that had been ripped apart from limb to limb by the Vietnam war. And the lady always represents Vietnam, and the map of Vietnam shapes like her too, wearing the Vietnamese conical straw-hat. Now they're celebrating a new prosperity with the happy tempo music. Short memory is a blessing in this case.

You can also see that Vietnam Pavilion is a more presentable than DPRK's, which gives you an idea that they're much better off than DPRK. They share so many similarities, but the paths they're taking can't be more divergent. Both are commie countries that torn by the eponymous wars that share Chinese border and shaped the 2nd half of the 20th century world history; but one is stuck in a bygone era of poverty, absolute dictatorship, and hermit kingdom similar to China pre-1979 (before the Opening-Up and Reform), while the other tails China on this new blazing trail of rags to (relative) riches almost to a 'T'. Vietnam used to follow the Soviet model (so was China), and now Vietnam's switching to China model. Survival of the fittest ('fit' isn't so much 'strong', but 'suitable', 'adaptable'). Good on them.

We grabbed some Italian grubs at Bricco Café next to the Italian Pavilion. the pizza isn't bad, but the cappuccino tastes typically weak as in most places in China. They should take a tip from Portuguese pavilion. Look around, minority of the customers here are Chinese. Most of the Chinese here are speaking Cantonese (from HK). Pizza aren't catching on in China. The stiff prices may have barred some locals.

It was after 8:30pm and we looked around at the queues of our short-listed pavilions, and decided that we just gave up on the idea of going there. We grabbed what we can, and entered any pavilion that didn't have a (long) queue. We visited a few European pavilions including Denmark to see the Little Mermaid and even the rocks she sits on were shipped here all the way from Copenhagen. We also visited Holland, which was a playful pavilion, not taking itself too seriously.

Although the official closing time for the Expo is 11pm, but many pavilions knocked off work as early as 8-9pm. Some don't even bother to open for business on some days. Even the hard working Swiss stop taking people up onto their chairlifts at 10pm or so.

As we going to the metro station to finish for the day, we saw that the Aussie Pavilion that locates next to the station entrance was still open for visitors, and no queue. I went in for a looksee.

I did enjoy the Aussie Pavilion, probably because I was able to crack the cultural codes readily. Take the architecture of the Aussie Pavilion. The rusty red most likely represents the Red Centre. The wavy structure symbolises both the wavy formations in Ayres's Rock, as well as the corrugated irons of the roofs of Aussie sheds in the outback. The cartoon figure of the sheep shearer bears the likeness of ex-PM Bob Hawk. Sydney Harbour Bridge and a classroom of students were hung upside down on the ceiling as the school pupils look up (or is it down?) at us. It's a fun display even if some of the Chinese visitors wouldn't get the running gag about Australia being 'Down Under' or 'The Arse End of the World' as our ex-PM Paul Keating so delicately, and poetically put it. Well, this is very Aussie, nothing is too sacred or off limit. We poked fun at the politicians, and they poke fun at the country.

Fair dinkum (some linguist suggests this very fair dinkum Aussie slang has Chinese root. It said to have come from 頂金 in Cantonese. Most Chinese diaspora in the 19th and 20th century are coming from the southern provinces of Fujian, and Guangzhou where locals speak Cantonese. Only since 1979 would you meet Mandarin speaking Chinese 'migrants'. Chinese has a very interesting, and checkered history in Australia. In fact, it defines Australia in some ways.

The whole Aussie pavilion seems to aim at the kids, and so it's a good pavilion to bring your hubbie/wife and your 2.3 kid(s) along. From time to time, artists dress in various costumes roamed around the pavilion. In my last visit when I walked past, a spotty cow and a Aussie bloke with giant head and visibly bad dental works donned in corks-dangling hat entertaining kids around pavilion. Some Chinese youngsters got so cosy and excited with these cartoon characters that they rumbled them to the ground (the top heavy character is very unstable). The Aussie fun factor and laid-back attitude does show through in this pavilion, and suitably appeal to kids and kids at heart.

At the wall near the exit were names of companies who sponsored this pavilion (like the running credit at the end of a film). I spotted the usual suspects like BHP Biliton (The Big Australian), Rio Tinto (espionage scandal), and ANZ (whose ex-HSBC boss intends to expand ANZ into Asia, especially China in a big way). But much to my surprise, I couldn't find Fortescue. China made Andrew Forrest the richest man in Australia at the heyday of commodity boom of 2007 by buying up shiploads of iron ores from Fortescue where he's the CEO and major shareholder. Maybe we missed it, but our six eyes (Atta's 4, and my 2) made a point of combing the wall, and failed to find it.
'The Arse End of the World' Pavilion seems like a fitting end to our last pavilion visit to the Expo.
http://flourish.org/upsidedownmap/

For people who want to visit the popular pavilions like China, Germany, and especially Japan, etc, either you prepare to spend hours of excruciating boredom queueing up or simply forget it. China Pavilion is one of the few permanent structure in the Expo. So if their exhibits remain after the Expo ends (I hope so), then I can visit it in some future Shanghai trip (Fraser is planning to open up shop in Suzhou this year).