Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympics: What's on (CC)TV?

Three more days to go till the Closing Ceremony. I’m sure you’ve followed the Olympics, at least to a certain extent: Phelps’ 8 Golds, Bolt’s Double, China’s rise to the top medal list (not the NYT list), … Here, in China’s capital, there’s nothing else in town! (unless you’re one of the people who applied to protest, but that’s for another blog and you can read about it in the NYT, Washington Post, The Guardian, …) Everybody is following the Olympics, virtually all the time. My wife’s students have their IE browsers pointed permanently on at any one of the web channels (basketball, football, volleyball, ping pong, badminton, swimming, gymnastics, shooting, weight lifting, track and field, taekwondo, wrestling, judo, archery, tennis, fencing, field hockey, boxing, handball, baseball, softball, cycling, …)

So I’ve been trying to tape some of the Games for my buddies in NYC, especially those with HiDef channels but with no hopes of viewing Olympics Table Tennis. There are 4 CCTV channels that are covering the Olympics (almost 24-7): CCTV1, CCTV2, CCTV5 (now CCTV Olympics, with their logo the 5 Olympics Rings in white), and CCTV7 (showing mostly taped events from the day before). I taped the OC (of course), the post-OC news conference, and quite a few of the morning CCTV1 8:30-9:45 AM program (review and overview of each day) in the first week.

Recording Table Tennis turned out to be non-trivial, complicated by my trip to Shanghai during the first days of the team competition. First, the cable box program listings and listings did not always agree. This was trouble since I had to set the cable box to show the specific channels during the particular time-slots. Luckily almost all table tennis coverage was on CCTV Olympics, so I did not have the unenviable (impossible, you may say) task of trying to convince my wife to go home during the workday to switch the channel manually.

There was still trouble after my trip to Shanghai, as the Teams preliminary round ended and the elimination round started. This meant that the coverage (mostly of the Chinese teams) was not determined weeks in advance (as the preliminary round matches were). There were a couple of evenings when I tried to find the taped versions of table tennis coverage (after having missed live coverage), and had to rely on programming announcements running on the bottom strips of one of the CCTV channels. However, even that was somewhat unreliable. While the channel information was correct, the announced start and end times were not always reliable. I can understand how live coverage time slots could change, but taped programming, in the wee hours of the morning? (I suppose few people are watching, much less recording the programming, but …)

Further trouble with setting up pre-programmed recording the last couple of days. Since I no longer rely on listings provided by the cable company, I use the CCTV online listings. However, there were a couple of times when the online listings were changed between midnight and the following morning. Certain specific programmed time-slots would disappear, and instead of table tennis, other events would be shown. Again, to give these CCTV programmers the benefit of a doubt, presumably the order of play is not fixed at the beginning. Since they show almost exclusively the Chinese players (and the extremely cute ‘Fuyuan Ai’, i.e., the Chinese pronounciation of ‘Fukuhara Ai,’ the 19 year old Japanese player), there must be some just-in-time re-programming involved. So I have gone back to recording mainly the taped programming, shown after midnight.

Anyway, some of you will see how I managed a workaround of the mismatch between the cable box program listing and the actual programming. I had to select the appropriate cable box program slots to include the actual CCTV program. So if during an intense ping pong rally, the transparent yellow box pops up, announces the start of the next program, and asks for confirmation or cancellation, you will know whom to blame.

[And, finally, I would like to thank Bill for getting me the Archos 605 to make all the digital recording of Olympics coverage possible.]

Friday, August 8, 2008

OC Countdown III: We Need Now the ‘East Wind’

Less than 2 hours to the OC of the XXIX Olympiad. The palpable excitement this morning has abated a bit in the languid heat of this Friday afternoon. Probably my adrenaline is running low after weeks and weeks of anticipation. I’m sure the humidity and the heat also have something to do with it. It’s been foggy most of the day, visibility very limited. By 9 this morning, a long taxi line had formed outside our apartment complex; on any normal work day morning, you would be hard pressed to find any taxis at 9 around here. Most people have taken the day off. My wife left her mobile phone charger at work and so we had to make our way into the traffic restricted section right next to the Olympic Park. (A new campus of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is on the west side of the Olympics complex, directly across Beicheng West Road, i.e., North Star West Road).

Our attempt to use the Datun Road tunnel going underneath the Olympics complex was foiled. Our taxi was not allowed through (for the first time this week). We got on a bus and managed to make it to the CAS campus without trouble. My wife picked up her charger and we’re off the 798 arts areas to meet Alice for lunch. On the way back across the tunnel, the bus driver kept reminding us (and other riders) that traffic restrictions were about to start (11:30), and there would be no traffic going to or from the area immediate to the Olympic site. No matter, we were through the tunnel with minutes to spare. The rest of the trip around town was smooth. Very light traffic everywhere. Our taxi drivers kept telling us that they were not doing much business and plan to pack it in for the day right after lunch time. After all, just about everybody will be in front of the TV; except the lucky few (90,000), like Alice, who get to go to the OC.

Recently I have been repeated reminded of the “Three Kingdoms.” Not because of the blockbluster film “Red Cliff” (the most famous battle from ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’) that came out recently. And not because the media attention that it had garnered --- quite a few TV programs on the historical “facts” behind the fictional version of the Battle of the Red Cliff. And no, Peter, it is not the tale of Kong Ming ‘borrowing’ arrows, which I will return to in a future blog. (Even though heavy fog does appear now in Beijing and then at Red Cliff.) But it’s the more famous tale of Kong Ming borrowing the East Wind. Here’s how the story goes.

Zhou Yu, the commander of the Wu forces, was inspecting troops one morning and noticed that the strong west wind had tore up some flag poles. It immediately brought trouble to his mind. He coughed up blood and fainted right in front of the troops. Lu Su, one of the consigliore of the commander, started to panic over this and expressed doubt in front of Kong Ming about the upcoming battle. Kong Ming told Lu Su not to worry and that he knew exactly what ailed commander Zhou and how to cure him.

That night, Kong Ming made it to Zhou’s tent and asked to see him. Kong Ming said that he knew what caused Zhou’s ailments and how to cure him. Zhou wouldn’t believe him at first, so Kong Ming offered his prescription of the ‘East Wind.’

[Earlier, Kong Ming and Zhou Yu had agreed to use fire as the main weapon against Cao Cao’s forces. Unfortunately, the prevailing winters winds were from the west and the Wu forces needed a southeast wind to stay upwind of the Cao forces.]

So Kong Ming asked Zhou to set up a temple for prayer and promised to deliver the East Wind on the morning of the battle. And so off he went, prayed night and day for 3 days, with no palpable result. That is, until the morning of the battle. Kong Ming’s prayers were answered by a strong southeast wind. Zhou was astounded and feared so much Kong Ming’s apparent prowess (he could conjure the wind, seemingly) that he sent troops to behead Kong Ming right away. But, of course, Kong Ming, always a step ahead of Zhou, had arranged and managed a quick getaway.

The last 8 words of Kong Ming’s prescription were


(a rough, literal, translation, “Everything is ready, except for the east wind!”)

Anyway, everything is good to go. Now if only we had the winds to clear Beijing of this ‘fog’…

Thursday, August 7, 2008

OC Countdown II: We Are Ready

Part of the media frenzy is reflected in the TV ads, both 'official' and commercial, leading up to 8-08-08. One of most aired aids on BTV (Beijing TV) channels in March and April was “We Are Ready” (lyrics in English). Movie, TV and music stars gathered to sing “We Are Ready”. The first time I saw the 7 minute ad in its entirety, I was appalled. I was already pissed off by the exclusively English lyrics. But the ad also showed that we were very much Not Ready. Most of the times, the mouth movements did not match the audio track. You know what it reminded me of? For those of us who grew up in New York in the 70s and the 80s, WWOR (which is still channel 9 in present day NYC) used to show kung-fu movies on Saturday afternoons. Back then just about all the imported Chinese films were dubbed, and not only were the translations hilarious, the lip movements never matched what you heard.

So I have been trying to find excuses for this. Well, most foreign movies shown on Chinese TV are still dubbed. Ditto for a good portion of the pirated foreign films on DVD or VCD. Even more egregious are some of the TV serials. You ask, “Why would they dub Chinese over the Chinese?” These days most of the high profile serials involve Chinese stars all around the world. For instance, the two male leads of Huo Yuan Jia (the most recent movie version was “Fearless” and starred Jet Li) were both Cantonese (one actually from Hong Kong), and since the real historical characters were from the north (Tianjin and Beijing), they had to dub Mandarin over whatever they spoke on the set. I have a feeling that most Chinese are not very bothered by the mismatch. Hell, it even makes the ‘acting’ easier! The actors don’t have to remember all their lines!

I must say that the most recent ads are much improved. The music video that is most played these days (at least on the various BTV channels) is “Beijing Welcome You” (lyrics in Chinese). It shows many media darlings singing in the various Beijing locales and tourist spots. And Beijing is indeed as beautiful as the video!

I do hope some of my friends back in the US are taping the US ads for me. Here, one of the most popular is the series by Adidas, featuring real Olympic athletes (in red) and regular Chinese (in black and white). In one, with the Chinese women's volleyball team, when the Chinese players jumps to block, the other non-athletes behind them jump with them. "Impossible is Nothing" is the Adidas tag line. Adidas is going head to head with Li Ning's sportswear company ("Anything is Possible"). Both have contributed heavily (roughly 10 billion yuan each) to the Olympics.

But my favorite ad is the one by Nike, and feature the song "Heroes" sung by David Bowie. Unfortunately, it was shown in the spring and I haven’t seen it in a few months. It showed Olympic athletics preparing and practicing in Beijing. Some in their homes. Some using the local Beijing athletic fields, courts and gyms. These video segments of athletes were juxtaposed with segments of common Beijing folks running, swimming, kids playing basketball, soccer, teenagers hopping & styling on mountain bikes, ... There was even one swimmer shown diving into Hou Hai (one of the series of ponds next to the center of the city; also one of my favorite spots). Part of the fun for me was in identifying the athletes and the locale. And all this while David Bowie sang (We can be) "Heroes".

Here's the refrain from "Heroes":

Though nothing
Will keep us together
We can beat them
For ever and ever
Oh we can be Heroes
Just for one day

We can be Heroes, …

At the very end of the ad, the gold-medalist hurdler, Liu Xiang looked straight on and spoke in earnest


(a particular translation from an on-line version of this ad: "It's just a game. You decide how to play." but I prefer a more direct, though less literal,

"It's how you play the game.").


Let the Games begin!

OC Countdown I: There are Some Things Money Can't Buy

Less than 2 days to go till the Opening Ceremony of the XXIX Olympiad. Everything seems to be primed and ready to go here. The excitement can hardly be contained. The last legs of the torch relay started in Tiananmen Square yesterday morning. Supposedly by this afternoon, it will wind its way in and out of the city and end up at 101 high school (which my wife attended, back in the day). 101 h.s. is situated right next to Yuan Ming Yuan, part of the scenic summer palace gardens north of PKU and Tsinghua U.

The very last leg of the torch relay into the Olympic site has not been announced publicly yet. I will write more about the torch relay and the 19,400 torch bearers later in a different blog, but first, here is a quick look back at the last few months leading up to the Opening Ceremony that even Nicholas Sarkozy will be attending.

By now, most Chinese elementary school kids can probably list the top Olympic events and venues. Quick! Which event will be at the Peking University gymnasium?! (Hint. It's considered the national sport.)

Yes, that's right. Table Tennis. A beautiful, brand new, gymnasium was built at PKU for the event. Since mid May, the area has been roped off, including the May 4th Athletic Field next to it. By mid July the entire section of PKU housing the gymnasium has been roped off, including the Southeast Gate to PKU. Ticket and security checkpoint has been set up. Easy-to-spot yellow signposts announce directions in Chinese, English and French. At the same time that Beijing started traffic restrictions, entrance into PKU has been restricted to staff, students and Olympic volunteers. Just before dinner time last night, more internal checkpoints were set up. Apparently, my office is located in a more secure part of campus. (Why doesn’t that make me feel better?) I can walk to the cafeteria, but coming back, I needed to show PKU ID.

These days, for most of the day, PKU seems like a ghost town compared to the usual hustle and bustle. Two Fridays ago, the last of the Olympic tickets went on sale. Near the booth next to the Southwest Gate, there were so many people queued up that extra security had to come to rope off that portion of the road. A couple of the students I knew stayed in line for 2 whole days (they took turns queuing) and, luckily, did manage to get tickets to the Team Semi's (for Table Tennis).

Looking further off campus, much of the service roads and pedestrian sidewalks along the Fourth Ring Road were systematically repaved over the last few months. Beautiful potted plants, numbered in the 10s of millions, now line a good portion of the major roadways. These plants are sprayed regularly. 3 new subway lines opened up on July 20th. Another (the Number 5 that runs near our apartment) has been running since last October. I have seen quite a few cabs equipped for the handicapped. And the Olympic shuttle buses are electric. Compared to the Beijing 2, 3 years ago, Beijing at the present is decidedly Greener. There are trees and potted plants everywhere. Even the gasoline has been improved. I no longer smell hints (some days stronger than others) of sulfer in the summer humidity. Unfortunately, the city has suspended recycling in the last month. Partly because many trucks are banned from entering the city. But perhaps a stronger reason is the recycling collectors. If you’ve been to Beijing public parks recently, you must have seen retirement age folks picking up plastic bottles from garbage cans. Some even wait patiently for you to finish your drink. Some others are more aggressive and ask you directly if you are done with the drink. I’ve always found this to be a very efficient recycling ‘system.’ (Well, it’s built on cheap Chinese labor, like most things in this world.) Some studies supposedly show that it takes plastic bottles less than 3 days to make it from garbage cans in the middle of the city to the recycling plants outside the city in Hebei province. But for now, these recyclers have gone the way of the street vendors.

These days, I see Olympic volunteers everywhere: On campus, at info booths, on the street, at traffic intersections and at some security checkpoints. A couple of times when I walked past one of the info booths, I had to resist having a little fun speaking English (or Spanish or French) with the student volunteers. One of our friends showed us the volunteers' manual. On the first page, there were greetings in 23 different languages. And for some reason, Russian was not one of them ... (but other Slavic languages were there. hmmmm....) Supposedly there are over 1.5 million volunteers. And their getup (uniform, ID card, ...) costs 4,000 rmb per person!

Reminds me of a possibility for a commercial. Imagine an out-of-town Chinese tourist arriving at the new terminal at PEK and the voice-over starts

Terminal 3 at PEK: 20 billion yuan

(as her taxi rushes along the Fourth Ring Road, past the Olympic site with the Bird's Nest in the background)

National Stadium: 3.5 billion yuan

(and when she walks on site and is greeted by the volunteers)

Uniforms for 1 and 1/2 Million Volunteers: 6 billion yuan

(and finally, a shot of her at the Opening Ceremony, with the camera pulling back for a full view of the packed stadium)

Hosting the XXIXth Olympiad: Priceless!

[Any suggestions for the stylized Mastercard logo?!]

(FYI, 6.85 rmb/yuan = 1 US$)