The Adventures of Cedrick Chan

These are the chronicles of my East/West adventures. I'm currently based in Hong Kong, China and San Jose, CA, USA.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

I've Only Got 6 Seconds?!?

6 seconds to shoot my masterpiece?
What can you do in 6 seconds? World record sprinters can't even run 100m in 6 seconds. The average MTV-style cut in a video used to be about 2 seconds. So you can fit about 3 shots in a typical music video. Well, 6 seconds is all you get in a Vine video.

What is a Vine video, you might ask? Well, it's a video that you can shoot and post in a social media app called Vine. You could call it the Twitter of video. Only rather than than 140 character tweets, you're allowed 6 second video posts. Actually, saying it is the Twitter of videos is quite appropriate as Vine was acquired by Twitter a mere 4 months after the app debuted last year in January 24, 2012.

Twitter's Vine
I've always been fascinated by new or emerging media that changes the way we human beings express ourselves and communicate. Watching Vine videos makes me think of a mashup of YouTube and Twitter. And like YouTube and Twitter has already done, I believe Vine can be a global game changer.  On a mundane level, it could change how we produce and distribute video content. On a more profound level, I think it will change how human beings view and interpret the world.

OK, enough about what it could do in the future. What can it do now?  First, let's go over how you make a video. Videos are shot by pressing your iPhone's screen (sorry Android users. Only iOS devices so far). You can make "cuts" by letting go of the screen before shooting again by pressing the screen again. You can make some "real-time" video editing decisions, but you can't go back and re-edit. So you have to put your video piece together in a linear and relatively quick fashion.  After you're done, you can post it into your Vine wall and share it with your Vine friends via Facebook, Twitter or Vine itself. Other than that the dynamic is that you only have 6 seconds to socially communicate your moment, feeling, story or idea.

What the heck can you do with 6 seconds? The current user community is still exploring. But there does seem to be some emerging genres and methods even at this early stage. My favorite Vine clip so far combines stop-motion animation with live action: 

I'm astounded by the amount of creativity already out there. In the short history of Vine, there have been some really good 6 second videos made. Genres I've noticed range from comedy, mood pieces, travelogues and loops. But the best place to see the best of what's out there is to view "Editor's Picks" and "What's Popular". What's popular are short bursts of YouTube style silliness.  For example, quick jokes, commentaries, punchlines or bizarre fare you might find on YouTube are quite popular. The Editor's Picks tend to be more "artful" and illustrate some of the potential language of 6 second videos. The techniques I've found most clever and entertaining include loopsrecursive loops and stop-motion animation and photography.

I admit that I do enjoy some of these short video bursts of entertainment or short video journals. But I find it interesting to view short POV clips from friends traveling around the world. In today's busy, rapid, moving mass media, I may not have time to read their blogs, view their video blogs or even check on their social media walls every day. But I do have 6 seconds every few days to experience and see the world through their eyes. Now if we use a little imagination, I think it's possible to see how this could affect the language of journalism, communication and education.

All this new technology and the speed at which people are using it can actually be quite overwhelming.   I was slightly intimidated after viewing some of the best stuff out there.  What masterpiece could I possibly come up with in 6 seconds?  But I eventually decided to just shoot for experimentation and fun. I did find it helpful to sit and chat with a few friends about the possibilities. That's exactly what I did one afternoon right before eating ice cream. A few friends helped me jam on an idea and based on that conversation I shot my favorite personal Vine video so far:

Vine has already brought a small group of my friends around the world together. It's got us all thinking and experiencing the world in a slightly different way. And that's all Vine is so far.  From what I've seen, it's a small, but fairly active community playing with yet another new medium. I admit that this could all be a sub-genre and fad. Vine could be a mere blip in our journey toward our cyborg singularity where our thoughts and actions could move at the speed of nano-biotechnology.

What would 6 seconds feel like in that future? Heck, 6 seconds could feel like an eternity.

Monday, May 13, 2013

How to Build a Better "Iron Man 3"

I know I'm not. But who is Iron Man?
I am NOT the producer, writer/director nor lead actor of “Iron Man 3”.  (duh)  Despite my previous blog (What about Iron Man 3?) expressing how much I disliked the latest Iron Man movie.  I do respect Kevin Feige, Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. for all their efforts in bringing us “Iron Man 3”.  My respect has nothing to do with the fact that “Iron Man 3” has opened big and is already a huge box office success.  It comes down to how little courage or effort it takes to criticize anyone’s work.  But it takes enormous courage and perseverance to put out any artistic work such as a movie.  The stakes are even greater with a huge commercial blockbuster based on a pop-culture character.  So it is in the context of that respect, I now write how "Iron Man 3" could have been better.

I was not involved in any way with the latest Iron Man movie.  But I have been a comic book, media, movie and storytelling professional for most of my life.  And since the age of 6, I have been the biggest Iron Man fan that I’ve ever come across.  This blog is from the perspective of a media professional and more importantly from that childhood Iron Man fan. I really don’t expect anyone to care about my thoughts, suggestions or ideas concerning “Iron Man 3”.  So this blog more than any other of my blog entries is really for me.

I’ll begin by posing the question that I think “Iron Man 3” failed to answer in any meaningful way.  “Who is Iron Man?”

To answer that question, I’ll start with a comment I remember Chris Claremont, the legendary X-Men writer made about the problem with Iron Man is that anyone who puts on that suit of armor can be Iron Man.  I wholeheartedly and completely disagree with this assessment.  By now we all know that Tony Stark is Iron Man.  He is one with the suit.  It is an extension of him. It is part of him.  And who is Tony?  In “The Avengers” movie, he says he’s a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.  “Iron Man 3” pretty much says he’s a mechanic who builds neat things, has a great girl and occasionally saves the world.  All of these descriptions are true. But as true as those descriptions are, they merely scratch the surface.  

Marvel Comic's latest Iron Man storyline
The best storytellers try to look at and understand characters more deeply.  For example, what makes Tony tick?  What is the heart of his motivation.  I would say most of it comes from his relationship with his father (which the second movie reveals some of).  Tony pushes himself because he wants to prove himself his father’s equal or better.  He wants to be the better businessman, billionaire, playboy, dreamer and futurist.  He wants his father to be proud of who he has become.  Howard Stark is shown to be a cold, stern father who is disconnected from Tony.  The comics at times hint that he may even be abusive (emotionally if not physically).  But even the comics haven’t defined his relationship with his father in too much depth or detail.  The current comic books may rectify that in the Marvel Now “Secret Origin of Tony Stark” storyline.  But even without that detail, we do know that like his father, Tony has demons that he has drowned in alcohol.  I sincerely believe that exploring those demons would be a bold direction for the Iron Man movies.  

But what about the current movies?  At the end of a couple of these recent movies, Tony Stark declares definitively that he is Iron Man.  What does that mean?  Who or what is Iron Man?  After several movies, I think the audience has seen something that just scratches the surface of what Iron Man is.  So here are my thoughts as a decades long Iron Man fan:  Iron Man is a concept or symbol that can actually be bigger than the man.  If I were to go beyond the character, I would say that Iron Man is a metaphor about humanity’s relationship with technology.  Iron Man is an optimistic view of how technology can empower humanity to make our lives better.  We can be faster, stronger, more connected and aware of ourselves.  

The 1960's Comic Book Mandarin
Alright I’m getting a little metaphoric and esoteric.  Let’s bring it back to character.  Or more specifically the hero.  A hero is often best defined by his villain.  The best villains are often the opposite side of the same coin the hero is on.  Think Batman and the Joker.  Superman and Lex Luthor.  For Iron Man, his arch nemesis has always been the Mandarin.  The Mandarin has represented his opposite.  East vs. West.  Technology vs. Mysticism and Magic.  I agree with what Shane Black has said about the Mandarin being an outdated stereotype.  To that end the trailers setup an interesting version of the Mandarin that hints at the embodiment of everyone who hates American values, society and culture.  That turns out to be misleading and false advertisement.

The opposite of Tony Stark in this case is a media sham or an actor.  There is a bit of tongue-in-cheek irony in that.  We have two great actors, Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Kingsley playing off each other.  But really, what does the Mandarin or what is revealed to be the real power behind the Mandarin, Aldrich Killian say about Tony Stark as a hero?  If Tony is the opposite of the villains, then he is not an actor or a sham that manipulates people out petty revenge.  Those villains and therefore what it says about our hero is just not that interesting to me.  IMHO, that also misses the point of who Tony Stark really is and how big, deep and complex a hero he is.

What the trailers setup is that Tony Stark is a charismatic, corporate hero and leader with a cult-like following while the Mandarin is his opposite, a terrorist leader with a cult-like following.  That makes me think of Steve Jobs vs. Osama Bin Laden.  The cult of Mac vs. the cult of Al Queda.  Basically two larger-than-life personalities that inspire world-wide fanaticism pitted against each other.  Wow!  It sends chills down my spine thinking what two great charismatic actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Kingsley could have done with that.  It could have been so much more fun and entertaining to see how these two larger-than-life leaders differ in philosophy, culture and approach.

And therein lies my frustration with “Iron Man 3.”  It inherited so much depth and potential that ultimately ended up being wasted in a loud, meaningless third act where all the plot pieces add up to say nothing interesting about the character or the human condition.  "Iron Man 3" turns out to be light popcorn, escapist entertainment about a neurotic, playboy billionaire who faces off against a burned-out, second-rate actor.  I would much rather have seen a movie about how a charismatic, flawed hero struggles and then triumphs over the demons of ego, media and technology while leading us to a bright, optimistic future with style and flair.  That is a hero for the modern ages.  That is Tony Stark.  That is Iron Man!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

What about Iron Man 3?

The kid within has questions about Iron Man 3

“Tony Stark makes you feel
He’s a cool exec with a heart of steel!”

Those were the words that kicked off the Iron Man theme song for the first Iron Man cartoon I saw as a kid.  Back then, the best Marvel could muster were low budget cartoons and live action TV shows.  I still love those cartoons!  (You have no comic nerd cred if you don’t get some joy in watching Jack Kirby and Don Heck illustrations even animated in primitive form.)  Those live action TV shows are another matter altogether.  Even as a kid I only tolerated them because I realized the limits of technology and money made it nearly impossible to bring lesser-known comic book creations like Thor and Iron Man to life.  

Fast forward to 2008:  “Iron Man” the feature film ushers in what is now known as Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Thanks to Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ), my favorite childhood superhero is no longer a second-tier Marvel character, but recognized the world over as the vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  For the first time, the world can now really see “live” on the screen what the rest of us Marvel Maniacs have been geeking out over on the printed page.  I’ve been in superhero geek heaven since 2008.  But all things must come to an end.  Phase One ended with a huge $1.5 billion box office bang called “Marvel’s The Avengers.”


The release of “Iron Man 3” officially kicks off Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Phase Two promises to be both smaller and more intimate with solo hero movies like “Iron Man 3”, “Thor: The Dark World”, and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.  But it also promises to get bigger and more cosmic with “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Avengers 2”.  So how does “Iron Man 3” fare in kicking off Phase Two?  

If I had to sum up “Iron Man 3” in a few words:  Loud, disjointed, hollow and disappointing.

Yes, RDJ remains a charming as hell Tony Stark.  Like all the other films featuring Iron Man, he is a joy to watch on screen.  He brings a loud, braggadacio and swagger to Tony while also projecting a hero who is vulnerable, ingenious and persevering.  His interaction with all the other actors on screen is funny, entertaining and engaging.  RDJ remains a joy to watch as Tony Stark.  But after 5 films as Tony Stark (3 Iron Man movies, 1 Avengers and a cameo in the Incredible Hulk), just watching RDJ on the screen is not enough to make a movie great.  The problem with “Iron Man 3” is how all the other pieces of the movie are disjointed and don’t quite add up to a satisfactory film.

The Movie (left) & Comic Book (right) Mandarin
OK, so I’ll admit there is the Iron Man childhood fan in me that’s completely unsatisfied with what has been done with the Mandarin.  Since they alluded to the Mandarin in the “Ten Rings” organization of the first “Iron Man” movie, I’ve always acknowledged it would be challenging to update the bad, Fu Manchu-style, stereotype of Chinese communist villainy that the comic book Mandarin is.  What was alluded to in the trailers of an archetypical villain who stands on the extreme opposite of everything American seemed like an interesting take I was looking forward to.  A hero is often defined by his enemies.  Most people familiar with the Tony Stark character know that he is actually his own worst enemy.  But external to Tony, without a doubt his greatest arch enemy has always been the Mandarin.  Unfortunately, this movie reveals a Mandarin to be something far less than what was advertised in the trailers.  (SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT) In fact, the movie Mandarin is essentially a make-believe joke or a sham.  Can you imagine if Lex Luthor or the Joker weren’t real, but figments created by some other enemy of Superman or Batman?  Entirely unsatisfying.

What the Mandarin ultimately is revealed as at the end of the film, completely deflates a moment in the first act where an emotionally distraught Tony Stark calls out the Mandarin and declares “it’s just you and me” in a direct charged challenge to the Mandarin.  So what is set up so beautifully in the first act of the movie comes to an entirely unsatisfying resolution between Tony and the Mandarin.

Writer and director, Shane Black has decided not to hang the entire movie on the hero vs. the villain. Then what should he hang the entire movie on?  The obvious choice is Tony Stark’s character arc.  With a superb actor like RDJ whom Shane Black has worked successfully with before in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” pre-Iron Man, it should be a slam dunk.  Only it isn’t.  The movie begins with Tony Stark suffering post-traumatic syndrome after the battle in the Avengers.  I loved this angle and approach.  It beautifully shows serious repercussions and a vulnerable character developed from last summer’s blockbuster “The Avengers”.  Shane then strips away Tony from all of his toys, fortune and friends to setup a situation where we can see Tony deconstructed down to the core of who he is.  So far so good.  But then we get to act 3 where we should have an answer to the question:  Who is Tony Stark?  At the end of this movie he once again declares that he is Iron Man.  OK, we get it.  You've said that many times now.  But who is Shane Black’s Iron Man?

The best I can tell, the movie essentially shows that Tony is the sum of all his loud, disjointed hi-tech parts that he builds.  Only he isn’t.  He’s supposed to be more than those mechanical parts.  (SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING) Which he triumphantly blows up to demonstrate that he is not his armor (or its accessories).  So he sheds his metaphorical cocoon to be reborn as...  what I'm not so sure.  Tony?  Iron Man?  As a decades-long Iron Man fan, I have my ideas about who Tony Stark/Iron Man is.  But this movie really does little to illustrate who Tony Stark and Iron Man is beyond a mechanic who makes neat VFX gadgets while making snide remarks.  

The modern classic Extremis storyline
The VFX and “armor” in “Iron Man 3” are another issue I have.  Iron Man is more like Accessory Man in this movie.  In the story, he is actually physically in the suit for only a few minutes.  When he is Iron Man, it’s really just bits and pieces of accessories that he goes into and out off faster than you could put on or take off your own fashion or hi-tech accessories.  This direction relies heavily on many moving CG (Computer Generated) pieces that have little weight on screen.  One of the best things Jon Favreau established in the first Iron Man movie was the use of more practically built armor pieces.  This gave Iron Man more weight and believability on screen.  Even the comic book Extremis version of the armor had a sense of weight and power that is lost in this movie version comprised of many weightless CG pieces that fly around and get knocked off relatively easily. 

Thus we’re left with CG Accessory Man.
I can continue to knit pick plot points such as Tony suddenly becoming a special ops man able to sneak into a highly fortified compound. Or how a highly experienced military man like James Rhodes is left unattended in that compound so that he can easily escape.  Or how easy it is to pry anyone out of any of the Iron Man suits in this movie (my car is more secure and fortified than the Iron Man suits in this movie), but those are really minor points compared to the overarching problem.  Despite inheriting and setting up a beautiful opening character arc, we end up with a big empty shell of a character and movie.  Kind of appropriate considering that one of the comic book Iron Man's nick names is “shell head”.

To be fair, “Iron Man 3” is a decent mindless, blockbuster, summer movie distraction.  The friends I saw this movie with were spread pretty evenly across the spectrum in their reactions ranging from those who really liked it, those who thought it was ok and those who felt it was disappointing.  If it’s not obvious by my review so far, you can count me squarely in the latter disappointed group.

“Iron Man 3” had so much potential inherited from “The Avengers”, previous Iron Man movies and comic books.  While the average summer moviegoer can probably find this movie entertaining, this movie squanders most of that potential and leaves the kid inside of me screaming “what about me?”  What about those of us who have known and loved this character for decades?  Disney and Marvel couldn’t give us the real comic book version of Iron Man and the Mandarin.  So we’re stuck with a hollow shell of a movie that feels more like those low budget Marvel TV shows with watered down versions of these beloved characters. Perhaps what the “Mandarin” says in the movie about fortune cookies sums up Iron Man 3:  It is a hollow knock-off filled with lies.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Media Watch 2013 Style

My New Year's resolution is that I'm going to start blogging more frequently again.  That doesn't necessarily mean all of it will be written entries, but video blogs also count toward this tally.  As such I will be making more video blogs or video commentaries at my department's newly launched Digital Arts magazine.

But this is a written blog, so what topic has inspired me to write my first blog for 2013?   I'm glad you asked!  I found two recent and specific incidents to be a fascinating reflection of watching the media in 2013:

A well documented battle between Tesla motors and the New York Times has been raging for the last week.  I usually root for my childhood hometown paper The New York Times, but in this case I find myself rooting for my adopted hometown of Silicon Valley.  I won't get into every detail of this battle.  But I find it fascinating how quickly the back-and-forths, analysis and commentaries on this matter have developed.  There is a veritable digital dialogue or chatter that simply would not have been possible a mere 5-10 years ago.  The data that Tesla published seems to fairly refute or address most of the points raised in the New York Times article.  This level of car and driving data would not have been so readily available to the public years ago.  Also, subsequent articles and tests by other media outlets like CNN and CNet seem to side with Tesla on this matter.  While I believe the New York Times article raises points that are valid and important to the average consumer who may consider driving or purchasing a Tesla, I'm rooting for Tesla on this matter.  Ultimately, I believe it is the general public and consumer who wins in this nuanced and layered battle or dialogue.

While the first incident reflects how new tools, technology and media allow a dialogue, debate and discussion that simply would not have been possible even a few years ago.  The second incident is a validation of old media journalism and investigation.  Even though image tools like Photoshop and social media platforms like Twitter have made it easier than ever to forge and place propagate fake images and stories,  this incident show vividly paints a picture (sorry for the pun) about how it still takes good, old fashion legwork and investigation to prove whether something actually happened or not.  Reading this article is almost like following the hero of Stieg Larsson's "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo"as our intrepid reporter physically investigates the angle a photo in question could have been taken.   By doing old-school, physical investigation or journalism, he actually proves the photo in question is real.  There is something comforting and validating that old-school, real-world footwork is still relevant in validating new media.

And there you have it:  The old (physical investigation) checking on the new (digital media) conversely balanced with the new (digital car apps and articles) reporting on the old (automobile industry).  That my friends reflects the state of watching the media in 2013.

Kinda neat huh?

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A Simple Import/Export Solution?

It's been nearly a year since my last post.  But I felt compelled to chronicle and comment on this experience today.
Paul Krugman's NYT Op-ED piece

I was reading a New York Times Op-Ed By Paul Krugman titled, Wasting Our Minds. It's about the enormous unemployment rates ranging from 33% to 50% among those less tha 25 in Europe and the slightly better, 16.5% unemployment among those under 25 in the US. Mr. Krugman also pointed out how the ridiculous university tuition rates add to the troubles of the American youth. Certainly not a pretty picture on the Western developed nations front.

Hoping to get better news in Asia, I came across a South China Morning Post opinion piece titled, What ageing Asia can do to attract talent . This article was about the shrinking labor force in Asia and the need for young new talent. Uhmmmm... it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the simple solution of exporting the educated youth of the economically ravaged West and then import them into the booming economies of the East where there is enormous demand for a young, educated workforce.

Of course in the real world, what seems like obvious solutions are often not that simple.  So what's one to do?  Well, fortunately for me, I feel grateful and lucky that I currently work for an organization that directly addresses these problems.  That organization is the International Technological University or ITU.  It's a small, dynamic and forward-thinking university that believes in execution as much teaching fundamentals and theory.  Our professors come from the world's top comapanies and universities, but our tuition rates are quite low compared to most US universities.

OK, so enough with the written commercial.  What are we doing that addresses the problems brought up in these two op-ed pieces?  Our professors, my co-workers and I train the youth in US and China with the best of Western technologies, business and the arts.  The educational and training process often involves working in real industry jobs and projects.  This makes our students experienced professionals by the time they graduate and look for jobs.  And yes, many of those jobs and opportunities are in China.

Chengdu is just one of the many cities I've visited in China with a huge insatiable demand for skilled workers.
I've seen first hand many cities in China where there are enormous facilities, equipment and demand for services and products. But the government officials, entrepreneurs and business people often tell me that there are not enough skilled, educated workers to these studios or factories.  So what's one to do?  Simply put we're training people and connecting them directly with studios, companies and businesses that are in dire need of these "wasted minds".

Monday, May 02, 2011

Bin Laden DEAD!

I haven't lived in the U.S. for over 5 years. Today, I sit in an apartment in Hong Kong reacting to what seems surreal and fantastic. But even with the distance of time and space from 9/11 in NYC, as I look at these spontaneous celebratory images, I can't help but feel emotional.

I grew up in the New York Tri-State area. When those towers tumbled, like many others, I felt a piece of my life crumble and fall. Many lives were lost that day. Even many more have been lost since as a result of that day. I never imagined I would feel this way about the death of an individual man. But today, I am a kindred spirit with this flash mob.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

FB Making Moves

Since I've moved to mainland China my blog entries have been extremely sporadic. That's because most international blog sites and that makes it enough of a pain where I don't blog regularly. (That and my crazy production and work schedules).

I'm currently in NYC on a trip over the New Year. (Happy Year of the Rabbit to all!) So I figure it's a good time as any to make a quick blog entry about Facebook in the headlines. Facebook is another site that's blocked in mainland China. After viewing this report on the New York Times Website, it's very obvious what' China fears:

Cairo's Facebook Flat

I mean, the guy pretty much said that Facebook and Twitter is what has made the last 2 weeks of protest and possible revolution possible. So I'm wondering why Egypt block or control Facebook and Twitter like they do in China.

I also found the following article in South China Morning Post to be quite timely and interesting as well:

Facebook opens HK office as part of Asian push:

I read that Facebook has hardly any presence in Japan and of course is blocked in China. Lots of speculation about what Facebook is planning to do in Asia and China specifically. But many people I know in HK are pretty damn hooked on Facebook.

And then this article makes China's stance on the Net pretty clear:

War on independent Web cafes worries Net users

In China, information and the Net are closely controlled and monitored. For example, this blog entry can't be easily accessed in the mainland. Currently, if you don't have a VPN, you're pretty much out of luck. I've heard rumors that China's making plans that will render VPN's useless in the mainland as well. Hope not. I like to stay informed about the world beyond what the state says I can or can not follow.

Anyway, that's an interesting snapshot on the state of the world at the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit and 2011. Now let's see how long it'll be before my next blog entry...