gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

I would like to start this post by expressing my unreserved thanks to all the people who have been stopping by and posting messages of late. It is always nice to know that there are people reading the stuff I write, and while I don't usually solicit opinions, I'm nonetheless happy to see that some of you are responding. Definitely it's an unusual change from many blogs where people write about their boring (they think) daily lives. And I hope you're all having more fun reading my posts than I have writing them - my service industry training tells me that the customer must be made to feel happy!

And now for my non-regular serving of random mutterings in response to things I've seen and heard today.

A newspaper decided that one of its quotes of the day would come from the latest episode of The Amazing Race 5. While driving in the Dubai area, Brandon and Nicole passed by a number of mosques. The beauty queen was quoted to have said (something like), "They've got lots of these church thingies, don't they? What are they called, mosques?" I don't know why, but that line just got picked out and published in the papers as a quote of the day.

I'm not sure what the intention of putting up that quote was, but my potshot guess is that it was meant to highlight and perhaps ridicule the religious insensitivities of the average American. If that's the case, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to laugh along. We're incredibly blessed in this fair country of ours in that we enjoy racial and religious harmony, part of which is a consequence of highlighting the fact that we have a Hindu temple side by side with a traditional Buddhist temple, and that the non-Muslim majority are used to seeing Muslims flock to mosques for their Friday afternoon prayers. We're incredibly blessed, but sometimes some of us forget that this is not something shared by every other society. And America happens to be one of them.

Now anybody who believes that every part of America is as global and as cosmopolitan as New York and Los Angeles has got his facts very wrong indeed. Much of America is American, and some of that means that the people were either strongly Christian or not particularly religious. Of course there's the Mormons and other such things thrown into the mix, but America was never a place that played up the religious affiliations of the non-Christian folk. To my (admittedly short) living memory, no President of the United States has had photo opportunities at America's largest mosque, synagogue or Hindu temple. That is just America's nature.

I'm not saying that it is wrong, or that we are better than the Americans. I'm not going to draw any conclusions on relative ranks. I'm only saying that there's a difference, and there are circumstances behind that difference. Brandon and Nicole (and most other Americans who don't really go about knowing the world) can at worst be accused of ignorance, but ignorance isn't a crime when it doesn't yet lead to dislike of the other cultures. Nicole can't be accused of ignorance if she knows the word 'mosque'. Linda and Karen can't be described as terrible, hateful people when they say (quite truthfully I believe) that Kolkata was beautiful and fascinating. Never mind that the streets of Kolkata were dirty and the buildings look poor by First World American standards.

So I don't really see the point of that not-very-clever quote of the day from the newspapers. If Nicole was insensitive about Islam, then the editor who picked that line was insensitive about America. Ironic, but that's just how it plays.

I had meant to catch that Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9-11, which hit the local screens a few weeks ago. More specifically, I had intended to catch it on a weekday when it would be a little cheaper. Every cent saved counts in the long run. But a combination of factors, including a fading memory, meant I never did catch the movie, and when I tried to catch it today I was disappointed to learn that the show's run had already ended. I had little choice but to catch something blatantly mindless like Harold and Kumar. For the most part the movie was dumb and forgettable, though I really had to take my hat off to the scriptwriters for the occasional moments of brilliance they had in playing up and then overturning American racial stereotypes of the Orientals, the Indians and even themselves.

After the movie I dropped by a comic rental store and re-borrowed a couple of volumes of Hikaru no Go. I was reading the section where Hikaru was about to take his exams for promotion to become a professional player. There was a story where he met, for the first time, a Korean upstart by the name of Hong So-yeong. Great game between the two. Even though I still don't fully understand the rules of the game, I was fully caught up in the emotion that this comic was so rich in.

After the game (which Hikaru won) Hong was moved to cry. I don't blame him; the blow he took back in Korea after such a promising start had him in a standstill and he was refusing to play properly. This was the first game where he decided to give it everything he got, and after all that effort, he still lost. He cried for Hikaru and demanded to know his name. In fact, I felt hints of tears coming to my eyes when I saw the scene. As it happened I didn't actually cry at all. But I came close, if not that close. I don't know why; or if I do, I don't really want to explore that.

Sometimes I think the comic rental stores here make a real mockery of the supposed strict laws we have regarding sexual content. Sat alongside the usual "Made in Hong Kong" comics based on computer games or triad fights, I saw several stacks of comics that looked like they were of a sexual nature. A casual flip confirmed my suspicions. Indeed these Hong Kong comics even included writeups of "hot prostitutes" plying their trade in certain nightclubs or KTV lounges in Hong Kong. Pictures of real people exposing themselves had the offending parts bluntly covered by black marker pen strokes. On the other hand, comic artwork depicting nudity didn't suffer the same fate.

If you think the graphics was bad, the text isn't much better. The said comics may have blotted out real graphic nudity, but they didn't seem to have done any work on the text accompanying some of these pictures. Not to mention the fact that some rental stores also stocked text-only novels that looked like they had mostly sexual content. I won't even bother to flip through those and verify my guess. Considering all the laws we have here and the supposed general climate of conservatism (which I do believe actually exists, and can identify with), things like these make a real mockery of the environment we are in.

Personally, I'm not sure if the authorities just plainly don't know anything about this. Maybe comic rental shops are way off the mainstream compared to cinemas, television and radio (a local radio station was fined recently for some lewd comments made on a radio show). Maybe it didn't bother them that this country has a really weak reading culture. Given that I'm clearly past the legal age, and that I'm generally able to take these things with a pinch of salt, I don't suppose I really care too much. I'm fine with these things as long as people don't become motivated by these things to commit sex-related crimes. Besides, sex crime offenders are not really triggered into a sudden bout of insanity by watching sex movies (legally or otherwise). They just have poor control over themselves, and that's their own fault and not anyone else's.

Still, the sight of these overtly "sexual content" comics and novels bring cold sniggers to my face. Of course once in a while I wonder whether those so-called "romance novels" are really just dressed-up versions of "sexual content" writing. But then, I don't buy these things, so why should I care?

gambitch [ 12:08 AM]

Friday, September 03, 2004

We produce enough mouths, but the brains to go with them have some way to go.

This is not some statement regarding the overpopulation and economic depression double-whammy in Africa. This is about the state of "the profession" over here where I live. After a brief high on the international scene the schoolboys circuit seems to be witnessing some sort of slow but consistent decline. It isn't a shortage of people who know how to talk; there are some pretty slick tongues in this business. What seems to be missing is the kind of brains that is needed to put everyone together into a coherent, coordinated firing unit.

Maybe I'm biased, but my belief has always been that "the profession" is more brainwork than mouthwork. It has always been a kind of chess game, with ideas replacing the pieces. The intense levels of concentration required aren't a trivial matter - it requires not merely mental discipline, but also a willingness to look for the slightest weakness to exploit. Every weakness is an opportunity. Okay, maybe I'm biased after all.

After clocking the kind of hours I have (and I haven't really clocked that many in my time in "the profession"), I guess I have been training my ears and my mind to respond within two seconds of hearing something that is interesting. In fact, I might be training myself too hard without necessarily making the conscious attempt to try. It has just become a kind of second nature, like how those top gamblers in films can hear how the dice are rolling. Some of that is exaggerated, to be sure, but the sensitivity is adequately demonstrated.

I was talking to a friend on my way home, and we agreed how both of us were capable of being demanding despite our difference in temperaments. In a way the two aspects are orthogonal, so that is not much of a surprise. The point of it is that I know I tend to have quite exacting demands, so I can be a little bit picky over what some perceive to be the smallest things. Then again, if the target is excellence, then I don't imagine there to be anything wrong with being a tough taskmaster. You don't have to be a nasty snarler all the time to be a taskmaster, but it sure helps if you can become one when the situation calls for it.

Another friend (I'm not sure if, under the strictest definitions, he qualifies as one, but I'll let that pass) commented tonight about the importance of playing to your full potential regardless of who you're up against. There is quite a bit of truth in that. There is little purpose in conserving your energy because there is always the risk of overcompensation. Plus the fact that any momentum gathered thus far would be wiped out by this move to hold a bit of fire. People who hold it don't regain that momentum quickly enough.

It may seem a little absurd in the context of competitions where fixtures are a week apart, I grant that. But this is coming from a person who was used to a competitive diet of as many as nine back-to-back matches in three straight days, so forgive me if I ask a little much. The sheer amount of stamina required to see out nine rounds (and still down five pints a night for those who have a pre-disposition towards cheap beer) is quite something. But the intensity of the schedule also meant that the folks were better off coasting on high than cutting slack. If kids started whining about having to talk for close to twenty minutes a day, they should feel lucky that they usually do that only on one stand-alone Saturday.

Anyway, I digress. Stamina itself doesn't have much to do with brain power. On the other hand, a mentally drained person hardly has the incentive to switch the brain on and make it do some more work. It's not the easiest thing in the world. All that's left at that point is hypnotism. Mind over matter. But the boys hardly have to push themselves anywhere near as hard as I used to have to push myself.

How do you develop a finely attuned brain? I don't quite know the formula myself. Besides, I'm not exactly an authority on this matter. I can only quote Sun Tzu at times like this: "Know the enemy and know thyself, and every battle will result in victory." To know the enemy is to listen. Hard. At every line uttered. And not just keep your own mind whirring about what you are going to say when it's your turn. The ears have to be engaged to look for opportunities.

It's probably fair to say that the battle is won and lost based on the first three minutes, and what is done to respond to everything that happens in the first three minutes is crucial. You hear a fundamental tenet and that registers. You hear an awkward plan of action and you think of all the problems with that plan. You hear a split that has necessity as the last major argument (rather than the first major argument if at all) and you should know the guys you're up against have no case. Every minor detail is important, and certainly nothing is too trivial to be allowed to escape your attention.

That's the kind of upbringing I've had. Process every bit of information that presents itself. Leave no stones unturned. Meanwhile figure out what they're up to and devise the necessary counter-moves. When things start to routinely trigger something in your head, that's when you can claim to be a half-decent listener. It's tough, it's intense, but that's what life is like at the highest levels, I guess.

I've been watching a few lads for some time now, and while they can imagine what it's like for me, sitting there and occasionally twisting my face this way and that, they've probably not had the luxury yet of hearing my thoughts real-time. My notes tell their own story, of course, but I can't write down every one of my thoughts quickly enough without having to draw a little attention away from watching them. Even the comments I'm writing sometimes are just way too vague. I use 'feel' terms like "weak" and "confused" without necessarily expanding on them at times. Maybe it's because I write impression-based notes first and, provided the event isn't too far away, I generally remember why I had those impressions at all.

For me, it's not a job. It wasn't before and it won't be in the short term. It's a skill, perhaps an art, and I'm only imparting some of it because it would be a waste not to share some of that experience I've accumulated over the years. Yes, it's part of that grand human enterprise and other grandoise rah-rah talk. But I've stayed in the circuit long enough to have accumulated something for myself, and if I can't take things like this to my grave I might as well share a bit of it with other people.

As cynical about the concept of patriotism as I am, I can be suckered into helping causes that give my home nation some kind of small, even forgettable, intangible benefit (which over here translates to virtually nothing). It's not the patriotism factor for me, at least not so much that as it is the notion that I like building enterprises that are out to win. That process is fun, so much so it can be addictive.

Okay, my brain has really slowed down now. I'd better get some shuteye.

gambitch [ 12:36 AM]

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Two straight non-elimination legs! That's the big surprise for me in the past two episodes of The Amazing Race 5. Given the show's history, I had not really reckoned that it would have four non-elimination legs. But after the first one had come so early, it never figured in my thoughts that we would see two of them in a row. Traditionally it has always been one non-elimination leg followed by an elimination, but first Kami and Karli and now Brandon and Nicole have escaped the dreaded axe.

It is getting very obvious that Colin's nerves are getting to him really badly. Last week it was that quarrel he had with an African cabbie, and this week he almost flared up again twice. First was the Roadblock at the brickmakers, when he was just letting the frustration get to him as Chip was having a better time early on. Then he nearly threw a punch while boarding a train in India. The mistake foreigners end up making so easily is to squeeze for space with all the Indians, rather than try to get seats (like the twins did). So when Christie got rubbed up by a couple of Indians (this kind of thing happens) Colin came that close to looking for the offending man and seeking his form of justice. I am not sure if that is typical Texan behaviour, because I don't expect the world's most famous Texan (George W Bush) to do that. Then again, he doesn't have to when he has other political and military tools at his disposal.

Still, Colin and Christie are ahead of the field by a few seconds, with Chip and Kim closely following behind. The parents are doing really well, and Colin really likes them. I'm really liking the way Chip and Kim are playing up Colin and waiting for him to self-destruct. The very elegant thing about Chip and Kim's approach is that they are not openly confrontational to anybody, and apart from an early spat with Kami and Karli, they have never really made any enemies. Even then things have been sorted out between them and the twins, so this is a really different race from previous seasons.

You'd expect the odd mistake at this juncture of the race, and Chip and Kim duly provided it for us this week. Getting a cab ride to the airport rather than driving there is the kind of critical mistake that can haunt teams, but for some reason Chip and Kim realized their mistake quickly enough to turn back and get back into their own car. This kind of accident has happened before. Heather and Eve - the legal blondes - were famously eliminated in The Amazing Race 3, while another team almost suffered the same fate in Australia in The Amazing Race 4, both for driving or cabbing instead of moving on foot to the Pitstop and incurring a time penalty. At least Chip and Kim didn't have the same problems.

Linda and Karen are proving to be a bag of surprises. The Bowling Moms are surpassing all imaginable expectations by still being in the race at all. I still don't fancy them winning, but people like them are giving this season's race a very different flavour. Likewise Chip and Kim. Both may be competitive, but neither are intense, cutthroat or nasty. Come to think of it, that's a bit like Ken and Gerard too. I still have nagging suspicions that Linda and Karen will get overhauled and face elimination somewhere, but I'm having fun watching two very average people slug it out while they can.

Kami and Karli nearly picked the wrongest place to go bankrupt. Dubai being the Islamic city it is (United Arab Emirates), I was not holding out too much hope that they could build up enough cash reserves to survive this leg. Trying to use your female sexual charms in a Muslim country isn't the greatest idea. But the UAE is nothing if not a balance between religious piety and amazing modernity. The architecture of that Burj Al Arab hotel should say as much. And the twins got lucky meeting a Britishman (well the accent sounded British). US$55 doesn't prove to be too much of an obstacle for these girls, maybe.

Of the five teams left, I think the twins have the biggest physical disadvantage. They can run, sure, but they have not got the kind of body strength to do some of the things this race demands. That's why both of them ended up sitting inside the broken-down taxi during the Detour. They may have the occasional bout of fraying nerves, but I think their physical limitations may prove to be the bigger barrier. The Bowling Moms may not be terribly fit and can lose a foot race against anyone else that's left, but if it comes to strength then it's the twins who are desperately short.

As for Brandon and Nicole, what can I say? The way the show was building up, I was almost dead certain that they were going to go out this time. I can see why they passed on the Fast Forward given their regular jobs. I can also see that they are attractive and generally calm. Brandon is proving to be the new Zach, though Nicole is not quite as big a whiner as Flo was back in TAR3. Getting past the new obstacle of no money may not prove nearly as difficult as we fear, because from the way Brandon was freely tipping people in previous legs, they were probably facing some money trouble anyway. If anything, this new jolt could just make Brandon decide to be painfully frugal.

I liked what I saw in Dubai, and this week I liked what I saw in Kolkata. They've been to India three times now with this show, and they can still find places to go. They've been to the Taj Mahal in Agra, they've been to Bollywood and Mumbai, they've been to Kolkata now. One just wonders whether they'll ever go to places like Bangalore. The great thing about The Amazing Race, apart from all the competition between teams, is the way the people are so good at picking places and shooting scenes. Here's to them keeping this up!

(Incidentally, does anyone know whether Kolkata is the same place as Calcutta?)

Now that both Fast Forwards have been found, teams are left only with the Yield if they want to pull ahead of anyone else. This makes it really imperative for each team that it does not trail behind, in case someone plays the Yield on them. We've had only the second sighting of the Yield so far in this race, and again no one has used it. From an editing point of view, however, the fact that this has shown up again and that teams commented on when to use the Yield means we can expect to see it in some later leg.

Where will the next leg lead to? Shots from the trailer indicate an airport with Oriental personnel. That could be just about anywhere between China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. I doubt they would be going back to Korea in a hurry, while the fact that this was a non-elimination leg means that the last-placed team has to be able to raise a fair amount of money to have a fair chance of survival in this coming leg. In that case, Japan is out, and it would be quite a challenge to keep within a tight budget in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But China is so big - just where can they go? Of course it is just about as possible that they may be stopping somewhere in Southeast Asia, but we'll have to see.

There. I've done it. Two episodes in one recap. It's incomplete, and there are lots of things to say I haven't quite said, like the comments teams had of India (some bad, others nicer). But if I wrote this entry for much longer I'd be incurring the wrath of a few people who have a word or two about long postings!

gambitch [ 1:44 PM]


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