Beijing Pop Festival day two

I had hoped to see Hedgehog, but once again I was slow getting started, so I missed all of their 11am set except the last tune. When they vacated the main stage, I went over to the second stage. When I got there, something called “Play the Hits” was going on. As far as I could make out, it was a contest between bands. Each act played two songs, one of which always seemed to be Green Day’s “Wake Me up When September Ends.” The winner was Happy Monkey, and I also saw a bit of The Reason. As I was walking up, I’m pretty sure I heard a female singer, but I don’t know what band that might have been.
I hung around the second stage for Milk@Coffee, who were really good, in spite of a little technical difficulty. They play a kind of bouncy, lush, pop-rock style, and started out their set as a two-piece: the female singer and a keyboard player with a laptop, which handled the programmed bass, drums and backing vocals, plus some guitar. In the middle of one song, the keyboard player got so animated in his playing that he knocked the laptop over and the backing music cut out. While they were straightening that out, a real drummer and bass player came out. They finished their set as a full band. I particularly remember a great tune called “Wo bushi rock ‘n’ roll.”
Next I headed over to the main stage for Brain Failure.
They were surprisingly good, reminded me of the Clash with a bit of Green Day thrown in.
Thin Man was up next, and didn’t really do much for me. They were loud and jumped around a lot, but nothing grabbed me.
Ra:IN was a huge disappointment. This all-instrumental Japanese band started out their set with a big pounding-riff tune that had the climactic feel of a closing song, including the big cliché rock ending and much dramatic posing. Then they played another song that was essentially the same with a slightly different riff. It’s as if you took all the stock moves of rock showmanship and strung them together without bothering about the tedious music part of it. They could just as well have been an air band.
Marky Ramone started the big evening portion of the program with what was basically a Ramones tribute band. I knew this was what to expect, but it was still kind of lame. The lead singer, whom I called Wolfgang Ramone because of his heavy accent, had the look of a real Ramone, but his voice just wasn’t right for the songs. But it’s hard to avoid being sucked in by these catchy, stupid songs. The crowd was loving it for the most part, with much jumping around and singing along. I saw a slight altercation between some fans climbing up on the security fence and the uniformed security guards. The fans in question were not Chinese. Things over on that side of the stage apparently kept escalating, and we saw a couple of fans carried away by the guards. These fans were Chinese.
Cui Jian was up next. I’ve got several of his albums, and generally like them. it seems that although he hasn’t had any hit albums in China in a long time, he still stands as the only real icon of Chinese rock (he’s often called the Springsteen of China, but I wouldn’t press that comparison too far). During the setup, I was encouraged to see both a drum kit and a large percussion platform that included a large traditional drum and a big gong. Once the show started, I definitely was not disappointed. The percussion really made the show, with the big drum providing impressive thunderous beats. I recognized several of the songs, and the larger part of the 10,000+ in attendance were singing along.

And for the festival’s big finale, we had Nine Inch Nails. The change of stage took quite a while – we had heard that NIN brought something like 15 tons of equipment, and we could see that they brought their entire road crew. (Incidentally, this means that almost certainly the band chose to spend their own money to appear here, since the festival could not possibly have paid for them to bring all that.) Those of us who have seen big production, high-tech rock shows could tell we were in for a treat; I expect a lot of the local attendees, while they seemed to be familiar with the band’s music (I saw lots of T-shirts), probably had no idea what they were in for. I’m not a huge fan of the band, but I’ve seen them before (when they toured with David Bowie), and knew that they can be entertaining. I was not disappointed. First of all, it was incredibly loud, but very clean sound with noticeable stereo separation, which is amazing for an outdoor setting. The light show started out all stark white lights flashing more or less randomly in rapid succession, not at all following the movements of the musicians, just a barrage of flashes and shadows. Eventually, there were blues and greens added in, and finally the reds and oranges showed up a little later.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the show came a little past halfway. The stage went dark for a long time, and there were strange electronic noises from the stage. I could see that parts of the light rigging had moved. Then suddenly at stage level there were three green pillars like some kind of electronic display, and Trent Reznor, the guitarist, and the keyboardist stood in front of them with laptop computers on stands. Pardon me for not remembering what song it was, but the effect was pretty darn cool. There was a curtain of LED lights behind them. For the next song, the LEDs suddenly burst into blinding white light, with the musicians silhouetted against them. Nice!

They played for an hour and a half or so, and by the end I was pretty much numb and exhausted. And in desperate need of a restroom! It was impossible to get a taxi outside the park, so I ended up walking almost halfway home before finding one. All in all, quite a weekend, and I still haven’t caught up on my sleep four days later.

And again, I finish with some random shots from throughout the day.

Beijing Pop Festival day one

RR and I arrived a little later than I had intended, missing Joyside entirely. At the entrance to Chaoyang Park, we stopped and read the “informational” sign about the festival. I put “informational” in quotes because we learned very little from it aside from getting an idea for what part of the park to head to. You have to purchase a separate park admission (¥5) and then walk quite a distance before getting to the music stages. From the south park entrance, you first come to the smaller stage. You can walk right in without having a ticket, so we caught the last couple songs of New Perfume.
When they finished we wandered in the direction of the main stage, following the confusing signs. After a bit we came to the “promotion area” where the festival sponsors have booths set up and there was a sign for TICKET OFFICE without an arrow. Probably the most amusing one is for a company that produces canned tuna. Free samples!
Then we passed the T-shirt and CD booths, some of which seemed to be for individual bands. Then the food area, and finally a small van with a sign taped on it for purchasing tickets. After much back and forth, I managed to buy tickets for both Saturday and Sunday. My friend decided to avoid the confusion and just get the single day pass.
When we got to the main stage, Rize was playing.
Fairly heavy rock, with a bit of something like Red Hot Chili Peppers thrown in. I think we must have caught most of their set.
Next up was the Russian band Mumiy Troll. They were very fun, tending toward a little bouncy ska beat sometimes, and other times doing a kind of folk-rock oom-pah beat. Most of the lyrics were in Russian, but they got quite a cheer when they did one verse of a song in Chinese. The lead singer did his between song banter in Chinese. All I can say is his Chinese is better than mine. Thumbs up on this one – I would buy a CD.
Next was XTX, a Chinese rock band that reminded me of Cui Jian gone all heavy. I was intrigued because during the setup, two guqins were brought out onto the stage. I rather liked them from a musical standpoint, but the vocals were not very good, mostly off-key screaming. Their set ended very abruptly after a song that did not have the feeling of a final song at all. Music stops, “Zaijian,” and they’re gone. Never did touch the guqins.
By that time I was getting pretty hungry, so I left the main stage area to hit the food booths. One place had a set of one slice of pizza, two beef skewers and a glass of sangria for ¥40. The skewers were excellent, the pizza passable, and the sangria hit the spot. I found my friend and we ate while Shelftalker was on the main stage and The Crimea was on the small stage.
To finish off the day, we caught the last three acts on the main stage: New York Dolls, Brett Anderson (“ex-Suede” as all the promotional materials said), and Public Enemy. The Dolls were good campy fun, and really got the crowd going.
We missed the very beginning of Anderson’s set to go back out and get beverages. I’m not familiar with Suede, and couldn’t tell you what they were playing, but it sounded pretty good, and much of the crowd was able to sing along with the lyrics. Good solid Britpop which I’d have to say I enjoyed more than Coldplay, though there was some superficial similarity.

As it turns out, this is the second time I’ve seen Public Enemy. The first was in Seattle back in about 1989. I’m not much of a fan, though I recognize their place in music history, and I was intrigued by the thought of this band playing in the Peoples Republic of China. It took them forever to get the stage set up, not because they had anything fancy, but due to what seemed like miscommunication and ineptness on someone’s part. While the sound check was going on, someone had left a mic patched into the main speakers so we got to hear “Mike, talk to me. Can you get mic two? Check, check. Mike, are you there? We lost the second guitar. This is messed up. Chuck, do you have a mic?” – “I’ve go two!” – “Check one.” – “Check, check.” – “Which one is that?” – “This is mic two.” And so one for a long time.

Eventually they came out, and the sound was surprisingly good (much improved over the last time I saw them). They had live bass, drums, and guitar players, and approached rap-metal at times. I never thought I would be able to say something like “One of the best guitar solos of the day was for Public Enemy.” But the guy was really good. I don’t really care for their whole military shtick, with the two “dancers” in fatigues, but they are what they are. We hung around for three or four songs, and then took off. We ended up walking all the way home because we couldn’t find a taxi, and made a quick stop at KFC along the way.

It was quite a day, and I was looking forward to Nine Inch Nails and Cui Jian on day two, and hoping the weather would be as nice.

Here are some shots from around the festival.


I bought that DVD fair and square!

Warning: This entry is probably only of interest to science fiction fans. I won't be offended if you skip it.

On the schedule it said that The Solitary Planet would start at 10am, but when I got to the room, the signs said 10:40. I wandered over to the Exhibition Hall to see if anything was going on. They’d had the art auction the night before, so you couldn’t even look at the pretty pictures.
As I mentioned before, the play was based on Stanlslaw Lem’s book Solaris, which has been the source of two movies as well. In this case, it was in Japanese of course, though they had English projected on the wall next to the performing area. In general, the basic themes of the novel were intact, and the main focus was on the character conflicts and questions about who was crazy and who could figure out what was going on. It’s really a worthwhile book, so I don’t want to give too much away. The setup goes like this: a psychologist is called to a distant research station in orbit above the mysterious planet called Solaris. Most of the research staff has been called back to Earth, but three remained behind, and one of them summoned the doctor. Once the psychologist arrives, he finds the station in a shambles and the three scientists behaving very strangely and not explaining anything. Then he starts to see things, namely his dead wife. She is not a hallucination; she is solid and can talk with him, though she does not seem to have much memory of the past. Each of the others has a comparable visitor. From then on out, the characters try to solve the mystery and face the demons brought up by their “guests.”
All in all it was quite well done, with a set consisting of one desk, two chairs, and a curtain for actors to go behind when they were not in the scene. A technician with a laptop provided the subtitles and music as well as controlling the lights.
The play finished a little after noon, and I rushed to a panel called “Defending Public Domain from Corporate Copyright Maximalism,” which again featured Cory Doctorow (it seemed I was following him around), along with Patrick Neilsen Hayden, Inge Heyer, and Naomi Novik. Doctorow expressed dismay at the arguments used by some of his compatriots in the electronic right arena. When they talk about information being free as a moral issue, they only confuse the matter and turn away people who might otherwise be convinced. Doctorow is against strict copyrighting on digital media because it is inherently impossible. Once information is in a digital form, whether it’s music, pictures, movies, books, or whatever, it can be copied, transformed, and distributed, and any attempted protections will only slow that process down. And any country that tries to mandate adherence to such inherently impractical restrictions will find that certain types of business move elsewhere, to countries with fewer restrictions. The American policy in this case has been to try to force other countries to accept to legal strategies that lobbyists for major media corporations have pushed through our legislative branch.

Doctorow, as part of his work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has been a part of some very interesting conferences. He told of meetings held by the European Union about future media regulation. On the subject of providing on-demand video, they were proposing rules, and the basic idea was that any service or feature which provides value to the consumer should have a cost associated with it. Therefore, if a viewer wants the ability to pause or fast-forward the video, the owner of the content has the right to set limits on that. So the player and the distribution technology have to be able to turn off the fast-forward function. There was also a discussion about pausing. How long should a person be able to pause a video before they have to pay for it again? How long would a person normally need to pause a video? How long would a nursing mother need to care for her child before she can get back to the watching she paid for? Do you remember the old days where if you bought a video tape or a DVD you could just watch it in whatever manner you wanted? The industry representatives were also trying to devise a payment scheme for multiple players. What about the child of divorced parents who buys a movie at mom’s house, but doesn’t finish watching it and wants to finish it over the weekend at dad’s place? Their solution? She can call the copyright restriction office of the content owner and explain the situation (just like you have to do sometimes with Windows licensing on your PC). They would then unlock the movie for her to watch on a second player.

The situation is already somewhat ridiculous. If you’re an American and you take a vacation in Europe, where you discover a European movie you like and buy it on DVD, when you take it home, you will find that even though you paid fair price for a legitimate copy, you are not allowed to watch it on your American DVD player (even if the movie is not available in the US). Does this make sense? Whom is it protecting?

My plan for the next session was one in which Silverberg was listed to participate along with several Japanese authors. I went by the slated room, but it was packed and Silverberg did not seem to be there, so I picked an alternate: “Upcoming Books from Tor.” Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Tom Doherty went through their calendar and talked about forthcoming titles, most of which seemed to be part of fantasy series.

After that, I checked out a little bit of anime at the Rocket Girls panel. It was almost all in Japanese with no interpreter nearby (or maybe there was, but I sat near the back because I intended to sneak out early). After a little introduction, they showed what seemed to be the first episode of a series. It was one of those anime shows that’s a frustrating mixture of good and stupid. In any case, the story was just a setup for the real action that was to come, and maybe someday I’ll see more of it. I certainly would give it another chance.
My final panel of the con was “Living with Another Writer” with panelists Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber. As I expected, the audience was fairly small, a dozen or so people in a large room. They talked a while about their accommodations for each other’s schedules and habits. Before they married, she had actually had a regular job where she went to an office and so on, something which he has never done (by the time he graduated from college he was making enough money as a writer that he never had to get a “day job”), and he insisted that if they were to live together, she would have to work freelance. He was much too attached to his lifestyle where he can on the spur of the moment decide to go to France for a month or whatever, without having to get the approval of her boss. She agreed and made the big jump into the uncertain waters of self-employment. They discussed their schedules (he’s a morning person, she is not), and the degree to which they pass work by each other. They also ended up talking a bit about their three cats. After the panel finished, I got a chance to chat with the two of them for a bit. Silverberg told me how the previous panel (the one where I didn’t see him and left) had actually been the most interesting one of the con, because he had a chance to interact with some Japanese writers. I got a couple of books signed (one of the Chinese ones plus a Japanese copy of Nightwings). We talked a little about China and the changes taking place here. We are all concerned about how their headlong plunge into modernization might be damaging the planet’s environment, and I related some of the statements I’ve heard from the government here indicating they are seriously trying to alleviate the negative impact.

I made one last visit to the Exhibition Hall to get a couple of pictures.
This is a glider that was built by some fans of the movie Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s patterned after the one-person jet wing in the movie.
This one has actually flown. I took a picture of the picture that proved it.
And the Japanese are pretty keen on robots. Here’s a demonstration of some toys.
I saw some more interesting characters on the way out.
And there you have it. One big science fiction convention. Somehow I got through the entire thing without attending a single room party, and caught neither the masquerade nor the Hugo Awards ceremony. But all in all it was fun, and I’m glad I went. Next year’s WorldCon will be in Denver right in the midst of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, so I won’t be able to go. I think 2009 will be Montreal, which could be nice, since I’ve always wanted to visit there.
Random thought: Even catgirls have to check their email from time to time.

Seattle in 2011!

I have some more photos around the city of Yokohama, but they'll have to wait for another post.


The Rapture of the Nerds

Warning: This entry is probably only of interest to science fiction fans. I won't be offended if you skip it. There's a bit of general interest stuff towards the end.

Let’s see – where was I? I worked late in my hotel room again on Friday night after a day at the WorldCon. Saturday morning I got up around 7 and started a blog entry about Shanghai, and before I knew it, it was 9 and I hadn’t even showered yet. I got ready quickly and made my way over to the convention center by way of the Starbucks which was conveniently located on the second floor of the building my hotel was in. There are two other Starbucks between there and the Pacifico, so I had plenty of choices. I grabbed a latte and muffin and continued on my way. It had rained a little earlier, but was clearing up.
My first must-see wasn’t until noon, so I popped in on a session that was mostly in Japanese. A little background to set this up. Sakyo Komatsu (the Japanese Writer Guest of Honor) had been a prominent figure for many years, and been involved with a number of movies, so when the first Star Wars movie came out, producers there looked to him to capitalize on its popularity by making a Japanese space epic. The original plan was to actually get the movie done before Star Wars was released in Japan in 1978, but planning and production drug on and on and it wasn’t until 1984 that Sayonara Jupiter came out. Technical and budgetary constraints conspired to result in a very different movie than Komatsu and his collaborators had envisioned; there seems to be some disagreement about many points, but pretty much everyone agrees that Sayonara Jupiter was not the movie it could have been. Therefore – talks of a remake, doing it right this time.

It was kind of dark in the room, but you can see Komatsu (the small old gentleman) and the director of the 1984 movie (in black with his hand in front of his face). The others at the table were involved in various capacities, including co-writing, design, and so on.

There was a very helpful Japanese woman who sat with us foreigners at one side of the room and translated at least the gist of what was being said. The moderator (in blue at the far end of the table) spoke excellent English, and occasionally would repeat for our benefit as well. It’s hard to say at this point if the remake will ever get off the ground, but it seems that it might be a worthwhile project.
Next up was a panel called “Mundane or Transcendent?” which started out as a discussion about how important scientific plausibility is in science fiction. Panelists were (left to right) Patrick Nielsen Hayden (an editor at Tor Books), Charles Stross (writer), Cory Doctorow (writer and electronic rights activist), and Robert Silverberg (you remember him, right?). This is the modern version of a discussion that’s been going on in the SF world since it began: at what point does the science in science fiction become so far-fetched that you have to call it fantasy and not science fiction at all? Which leads to the differences between SF and fantasy and so on. Silverberg’s definition has fantasy as basically the fiction of the unreal, whether it’s magic and dragons or computers and aliens, and so SF is a subset of fantasy. The preponderance of elves and magic swords in fantasy over the last few decades has led us to forget that fantasy is really much more than that. But one dividing line many agree on is that modern fantasy is at its core fiction of the past, static and fixed, while SF looks ahead (or sometimes back) to change.

I think it was in this panel that the phrase “Rapture of the Nerds” came up. It refers to a possible phenomenon also called “Singularity” which (according to writer Vernor Vinge and others) is what happens when computer technology gets to a certain point that it cannot go beyond. There are many ways of describing it, but writer Ken MacLeod came up with “Rapture of the Nerds” as a humorous synonym.
This panel was called “The Killer B’s.” This is a nickname that has appeared in the SF world due to the names of three prominent practitioners: David Brin, Gregory Benford, and Greg Bear. Brin and Benford were both in Yokohama, but Bear was not, so we got Bob Silverberg. One thing they all have in common is that they have written works connected in one way or another with Isaac Asimov. Back while Asimov was alive, Silverberg wrote novel-length versions of three of his most famous short stories; Brin, Benford, and Bear have each written a volume in a series based on Asimov’s notes for unwritten volumes in his Foundation and Robots universe. Aside from talking about the Asimov-related writing, they got into quite an animated discussion about global warming. They are all in agreement that it’s a huge problem and governments have been tragically lax about dealing with it, but disagree strongly about what should be done. Benford is involved in a plan to seed the upper atmosphere with substances that will hopefully block sunshine and slow the planet’s warming trend. Brin strongly feels that this is foolish and possibly quite dangerous. He favors the simpler tactic of “fertilizing” the desert parts of the oceans where little life currently exists, increasing both food production for people and counteracting greenhouse gases with increased CO2 absorption. Please excuse me if I don’t have these descriptions right – I didn’t take notes.
Here’s the kind of thing you see in the halls at an SF convention – with a Japanese slant.
Many Japanese women wore kimonos.
Here’s a robot flashing his private parts in public.

Next I went to see a screening of the two pilots for ArchiTECHS, which was a proposed TV series for the History Channel in which David Brin and a panel of technical and design people would each week tackle a problem and have 48 hours to come up with solutions. In the first one (which we actually saw second), a retired general asked them to redesign the Hummer, since it is getting old and obsolete, and was not designed for the kind of use it now sees in Iraq and elsewhere. The team came up with a really cool design (all practical and using current technology) that used a small diesel engine primarily as a generator and used four electric motors mounted with each wheel. The wheels used a design from the Mars rover which doesn’t involve inflated rubber. It had lots of other improvements, including a clever shield design on the underside that should help protect from explosives hidden in roadways.

The second pilot found a slightly altered team visiting the New York Fire Department and coming up with ways to help fight fires in high-rise buildings. They came up with a whole raft of things, some pretty far-fetched, some very down-to-earth.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun, but apparently the History Channel didn’t find it to their liking, so it remains an interesting might-have-been. It’s apparently been shown a couple times in odd late night time slots.

After that I walked back to the hotel, and in one of the malls, there was something odd and noisy going on.
It was some sort of promotion for an energy drink, and they had erected a climbing wall and kids were trying to get to the top.
Not far from there was a familiar-looking restaurant.
After dark, the Ferris wheel displays a light show. The patterns change, making spirals and all sorts of elaborate shapes.

I got back to the hotel, checked my email (no work!) and looked over the pictures I’d taken. I had music playing, but eventually I realized that I was hearing something else from outside. I looked out my window and saw that some musicians were performing outside the train station. I grabbed the camera and went down to check it out.
First up were two guys. They were pretty good, with melodic rock that reminded me a little of The Pillows (a Japanese band that will not be familiar to most Americans). When they finished their set, another group started playing.
This is Kaede and a guitarist. She was very good, with a strong, soulful voice (though she didn’t sound like she was trying to imitate American styles). She did three or four songs, and the other band resumed.
Meanwhile, Kaede chatted with bystanders and sold a few CDs.

Interlude: Shengri dangao

I’m not done with covering my trip to Japan, but I just wanted to throw in a timely bit. As I’ve mentioned before, in our office, birthdays mean cake, and yesterday was my turn. And it wasn’t just me. It turns out that CZ (whom I’ve mentioned before – she was at the Go! Team show) has the exact same shengri (birthday) as I do. Double dangao (cake)! As an odd coincidence, our Chinese teacher's son also shares this birthday.
It came sealed in a box. The name of the bakery is Waffleboys. It had a layer of cherry filling and a chocolate whip cream kind of frosting. Yum.
After work, JW and TG took me to dinner (thanks, guys!). I picked a neighborhood place I’ve been curious about for a while. It’s called Alfa, and it’s kind of an East-West fusion cuisine. They’ve got a very nicely decorated covered semi-outdoor seating area with a burbling water feature and a palm tree motif. Both food and drinks were excellent – it’s definitely on The List.