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

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Right, I have this problem, and I need some help.

I have this digital video stored on my harddisk. It's in MPEG format, and no, there are no known copyright issues because it's not the latest music video by, oh, Britney Spears or something. So I wanted to burn this video onto a VCD that can play on a home entertainment system, which is exactly what I tried to do with this particular piece of freeware I found on the Internet (don't you love those guys).

So I used the software mentioned above and burned a VCD. Now, the VCD plays fine on my computer using one of those VCD/DVD-playing programs, and it indicates the video was converted into VCD 2.0 format. Fairly satisfied, I tried playing the same VCD on my own home entertainment system just to be sure. Here's the shocker - it didn't play.

The natural conclusion of these tests, of course, is that my home entertainment system does not play video CDs burned in VCD 2.0 format. It plays VCD 1.0 format videos fine, so it still works, sort of. Which leaves me with two questions:

a) How do I burn MPEGs into VCD 1.0 format videos?
b) Are the majority of VCD players and home entertainment systems VCD 2.0 compatible? In particular, are the newer ones (less than two years old) VCD 2.0 compatible?

Answers on a postcard please!

gambitch [ 4:55 PM]

Thursday, March 17, 2005

It's funny how the latest episode of The Amazing Race seems to point out a number of things that make for good intellectual examination. Although, in a way, it does nothing to make up for the unfortunate fact that Debbie and Bianca have been eliminated. But that's the way the Race works out - sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and when you screw up something as essential as driving, only ridiculous super-bunching could ever save you.

But back to the point. In the latest incident that sparked claims that this season is turning into The Rob Mariano Show (which is a bit unfair to Amber, not that she's convincingly pulling her weight yet), our Survivor from Boston decided to forfeit a 4-hour penalty for quitting the Roadblock - and then convinced two other teams to do the same. To put it in context, you actually need to know a couple of things about the previous six seasons of The Amazing Race. Not easy, but reading TWoP is a great help.

The gist of all the history is essentially this - only three teams, according to living memory, have ever dumped a task and taken the penalty. Nancy and Emily, way back in Season 1, were frustrated into quitting the Detour at Bangkok, and, effectively, the Race altogether. They didn't care; they wanted out. Anything to avoid dealing with a continued streak that was the luck of Team Guido. Lance and Marshall, too, wanted out back in Season 5, when they could not complete the Roadblock and one of the brothers' knees were hurting (both were quite fat, you see). Nancy and Emily took the penalty, which was 24 hours back then, certainly enough to put you dead last. Lance and Marshall didn't even walk to the Pitstop; they waited for Phil to eliminate them in the field, which was a first in The Amazing Race history. And then there was Hayden and Aaron in the Final Four last season, with the incredible locks Roadblock. Hayden had no luck, it was down to the final minute of the day, and who'd have thought Rebecca (of Adam and Rebecca) would luck out? The point is, they all figured they could not continue.

But never before has a team chosen to quit a task with an eye to staying in the game. Not until Rob Mariano at this week's Roadblock, which was to eat four pounds of cow body parts. Eew. Reminders of Scottish haggis, and even then isn't four pounds a bit much? Rob recognized he couldn't finish it without forcing himself, but he didn't particularly want to force himself on this, and he didn't want to pass it on to Amber - not that the rules would have allowed it. So he checked the rules, weighed up his options, and took a calculated gamble to quit and take a time penalty - now slashed to 4 hours - starting from the instant the next team checks in at the Roadblock.

Which, in itself, is actually kind of strange. For instance, what happens if all the teams have already arrived? Does it make it no longer possible to quit? And what if the last team arriving decides to quit? But those are other questions.

The point to make here, though, is this: Rob took a calculated gamble and quit the task with a view to staying in the game. In order to do this, he figured his best bet was to persuade Ray and Deana to do the same well after he made his decision. And the only way the option remained palatable to Ray and Deana was if they could themselves figure some kind of benefit from their quitting as well. That it potentially existed at all, because at this point Debbie and Bianca hadn't arrived, essentially paved the way.

Oh, and no way can you force-feed four pounds of meat down the throats of septugenarians. Too many health issues. But again, I digress.

TWoP readers are essentially split on Rob's move. Actually, they're already split on Rob, and whether you loved or hated the move basically had a pretty close correlation to whether you loved or hated Rob. Detractors say that Rob's decision to quit, and essentially the fact that this was not punished insofar as they stayed in the race anyway, was antithetical to the spirit of the show. The short accusation is that Rob Mariano is single-handedly transforming The Amazing Race into Survivor, widely recognized as the most famous and probably most popular reality television show, but also considered among hardcore TAR fans as an inferior product. Those who love Rob, well, basically called it good racing.

I don't actually think this is good racing, not in the way how Colin and Christie (of Season 5) pushed themselves through every single task, determined to come out on top every time "because we're so damn good" and painfully proving it for a very long time. I don't think this manoeuvre by Rob can be considered in the same league as withholding information about the better bus last week, or getting a Survivor fan to help him out much of the first day in Peru when the Race started. It's not in the same league, simply because you're not doing the tasks, and the reason there are tasks on this race is that you're supposed to do them. That's also why everyone gets the same set of tasks, in the same order, and the options to Yield and Fast Forward exist equally for all teams. Withholding information is an acceptable part of the game process because there are no rules for it, and the producers didn't design that part. Quitting a compulsory task is not.

Having said that, even if Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich actually win the million at the end, we as viewers can point to this incident and justify why their win was tainted. Sure, they still bag the million and don't get a single cent less, but as public personalities their reputations would have taken a dent. Not that it's stopped a good number of Hollywood stars and wannabes from continuing their careers in showbiz, but the feeling is just not the same compared to, say, Reichen and Chip, or even Team Guido and Colin and Christie (two classic examples of teams most fans love to hate, but who never quit the tasks). The point is, we can do this later, even if they loot the booty. The opportunities to sneer at him are aplenty now that he's actually done what he did. We don't have to bay for his blood tonight and demand an elimination by default, because, really, what's the point.

If anything, I actually think that Rob might well have done the show a nice little service. His decision to up and quit the eating task communicates two very important points, neither of which he may have thought of, but both of which are good and powerful observations. Firstly, as numerous TWoP forum members have noted, eating tasks involving volume suck, even when the food in question is a genuine local delicacy. Christie and Nicole will remember the painful caviar task in Season 5, and then of course there is the egg task that floored Colin and Charla that same season. Last season it was the spicy soup in Budapest. And now, this. All four tasks have in common the fact that the amount involved is pretty large, and practically consists of more than a full meal. That's when the food stops being an exotic delicacy the way the live baby octopi in Korea actually was in Season 4. And that's when the eating task begins to be utterly stupid. Rob, Deana and Meredith quit the task when they realized they had problems going through the sheer volume of it. That it happened in the same one episode made it a pretty unintended protest. The powers that be should take note.

The second point is this: Whatever you may say about Rob's lack of moral integrity and utter disrespect for the race (if you view it that way), you actually have to recognize that Rob's manoeuvre was very carefully deliberated and calculated. Very simply, he's looking at the game, probing it from all directions, and carefully taking it apart. His actions at the Roadblock have exposed various aspects of the game no less than they have exposed his game mentality. The 4-hour penalty may have been scary, it may have been deterrent enough for lesser minds, but if you were calm and analytical the way Rob was, it turned out it wasn't all that prohibitive. Indeed, Rob and Amber left the Roadblock venue before whichever team triggered their 4-hour clock could finish the task. The altogether too obvious observation from that is that eating four pounds of cow innards could actually take around four hours. That's a very long Roadblock, if you ask me. And Rob saw it. Unless you're a binge god like this tiny-looking Japanese guy whose name I cannot remember, stuffing four pounds of hard meat into your system was not going to be particularly trivial. And that's when the penalty starts becoming less heavy than it may have been intended to be.

In a way, then, Rob didn't do anything that was blatantly illegal and deserving the boot. And that's not all Rob Mariano's fault - he merely saw an opportunity, an opening, a loophole, whatever you want to call it, and exploited it. He then milked it further to his advantage by getting someone else to do the same, although as it turns out, that probably saved those other teams as well. But what made it possible for the penalty to become something teams were willing to deliberately take in the first place, in the context of the greater war that is staying in the game?

Criticize Rob Mariano all you want, but the way he's taking things apart and turning the show on its head shows one thing - this guy realizes that the system can be bent or broken, and he has the mental awareness to work out how to bend and break it to his advantage. It's almost like watching a computer hacker at work. Very Swordfish, in a sense. But is he out to do the show damage? I don't think so, unless his claim about being a fan of this show is as fake as most supermodels' breasts. In fact, if you take things in the right spirit, and if the producers pay enough attention, Rob is doing all of us a mighty big favour. He's exposed the holes that have existed, and the big problem most people have focused on is the fact that the executioner happens to be Rob Mariano, Survivor alumnus extraordinaire and partner of fellow Survivor All-Star Amber Brkich, who he actually loves and who actually loves him. We hate it that it happens, but we hate him even more because, well, he's Rob and not Brian or Meredith. Or, indeed, Colin or Reichen. We viewers could choose to look past that personality-hate and thank him immensely for doing us a service, showing us things we didn't realize existed on the powerful platform that is national television.

And even if we don't feel like thanking him for doing us this favour, there's something else about this season that we should really note. Rob is showing us how it's done, the same way Colin showed everyone on national television how it's done, and the same way how, apparently, Jonathan 'Asshat' Baker from Season 6 showed his fellow contestants how it's done. Of course, Jonathan was a total jerk on-screen, but the tale seems to be that he was much more of a help to everyone else during the rest periods. It's just that he gets consumed by a totally different personality once they're not resting. Colin and Christie terrorized the field for long periods of Season 5 by showing how fit and good at the tasks they were, and by understanding the bulk of the game dynamic and working accordingly. The difference is that Colin and Christie were against an overall good bunch of opponents, like Chip and Kim and Charla and Mirna. The gulf between Rob and Amber and the rest just seems too appalling, and in fairness to Rob and Amber, they probably didn't know that until after Phil flagged them off.

When a bunch of half-amateurish players come up against battle-hardened reality-TV professionals - even if the skillsets involved in Survivor and The Amazing Race aren't perfectly overlapping - you can whine about a mismatch and how it makes for really bad television. And I agree, it can make for really bad television. Or it can inspire the teams to raise their game by three gears and give it a go. You know how the mediocre footballing sides in England, the West Hams and the Leedses, raise their game when they face up to big sides like Manchester United, and play as if it was their cup final. It's not a particularly difficult principle to grasp, raising your game in the face of tougher opposition. And unless these guys don't have it in them to raise their game - in which case their subsequent elimination, if and when it happens, would be utterly deserved - they should just jolt out of their comfort zones and race!

Which ties in with a couple of other discussions I've been quietly reading elsewhere. Something about total novices coming up against people who have mucked around and accumulated experience in another context, and therefore aren't total novices by any semi-strict definition. The general fear is that such a mismatch, if and when it happens, is going to result in asses being whooped and fragile egos shattered beyond repair. Yeah, sure that can happen, but are we necessarily in the business of protecting fragile egos and preventing them from shattering? Sometimes we are, sometimes we aren't - the danger is being confused over which time is which. Additionally, there is the danger of being so protective that you don't teach people that sometimes life can be hard. Because life can indeed be hard, and people should know this. Although, I will grant, there has to be some technique to it.

Exposure to the harsh elements has to happen, but it would be very bad indeed if people were thrown into the deep end with utterly no warning and without the semblance of knowledge of the greater plan. On the other hand, it can be helpful to people if they are told just what they can expect to come up against, and what to pay particular attention to so that they can fare better. For things like The Amazing Race, that would mean things like learning to drive stick and read a map properly, and thorough decision-making and exploring all possibilities. Things like "working the airport", for instance. In other fields, corresponding things apply. Ultimately, though, it's not just about getting beat and suffering utter personal humiliation. It doesn't have to be that way, and even when it does end up that way, it's very much a matter of how you respond to it.

Fight or flight, it's your pick.

gambitch [ 6:46 AM]

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

There's nothing like a kickabout at the beach.

Ronaldinho recently spoke about his experience growing up and playing football as a kid in Brazil. He and his friends, like so many other Brazilians, played the game as ordinary carefree kids in the slums and back alleys of Rio de Janeiro. They kicked the ball around like it was plain instinct. No coaches, no ten laps around the field - well, actually, no field either. They did it because it was fun, and because they liked it. Forget the poverty for a minute or an hour. Forget school, because the kids in Rio were too poor to think about education - you try being so poor and you'll realize what it's like.

So one fine day Ronaldinho and his friends realized it was summer, and went to the beach to play football. Barely a minute into the kickabout, they realized that it was much more difficult to control the ball on the sand, and you couldn't really belt a ground pass very far. So what did they do? Take lots of smaller touches, knowing the ball can't move quite as far with each tap. Thus they learnt close control. Sure, you can also lift the ball up and go for Route One, but you can do that pretty much anywhere, plus Route One on sand demands better kicking technique and brute strength. It'd also be good to have proper footwear on to protect your feet. But the biggest lesson, still, was close control and plenty of smaller, deft touches.

Smaller, deft touches are the nice kind of thing that don't necessarily make a direct and obvious contribution in terms of goalscoring, but they are delightful to watch when they happen. You could coach and teach close control, but somehow there's nothing quite like inspiration that comes from practice at the beach and in back alleys. That kind of practice is a kind of happy accident - it's not a product of coaching, but a consequence of personal initiative or passion for the game.

You look at advertisements in recent years showing people playing casual "in the community" football, like the most recent Nike ads starring Ronaldinho, for instance, or something a little while back showing a mass 50-person kickabout that even involved someone riding an old-style motorcycle. There is a certain kind of joyous buzz about those that is different from proper football matches with jerseys and stadia, meat pies and Bovril. And it's certainly different from things like The Cage or the gladiator thing by Pepsi. They're all good in their own ways, of course, but still, there's nothing like realizing that football is a people's game in a way that things like tennis and golf aren't quite.

gambitch [ 9:34 PM]


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