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Beach Volleyball: Report from Beijing

by Jeremy Breningstall Monday 04 July 2011
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Just to let you know that City Moments is not ONLY about parties :)
 
China added a third major beach volleyball to its roster this year but the crowds have yet to follow. Last week, the first $600,000 Beijing Grand Slam event took place, part of the FIVB Swatch World Tour which features the best male and female beach volleyball players from around the globe. The Beijing event followed closely on the heels of the Sanya and Shanghai Open tournaments.
 
The competition was fierce at the Beijing Grand Slam. In the men's division, Brazil's Alison Cerutti and Emanuel Rego (who just last Sunday took the world title in Rome) finished first in a come-from-behind match against Germany's Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann, another top team with many years of world competition experience. The hulking Cerutti threw out two muscular fists after winning the first place prize in Shanghai. In their route to the top, they were aided by an ankle injury to American Phil Dalhausser, which forced Dalhausser and partner Todd Rogers to withdraw from Beijing and may have slowed him in Rome- though to be fair, Rogers and Dalhausser were already experiencing a slight slump even before the injury. After a year of nearly unrivaled domination, Dalhausser and Rogers now have rich competition heading into the 2012 Olympic year. Earlier this spring, Dalhausser and Rogers beat fellow Americans Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal in the finals at the Shanghai Open to take the first place prize there. The World Championships in Rome was a Brazilian affair- Cerutti and Rego faced off against countrymen Ricardo Santos and Marcio Araujo in the final match.
 
On the women's side, two-time Olympic gold medalists Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor took first place in Beijing but fell to Brazil's Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta Da Silva a week later. 
 
Since winning three world titles and Olympic gold medals in Athens and Beijing in the last decade, Walsh and May-Treanor have been seldom seen on the world circuit. Walsh took time off to give birth to two sons. May-Treanor, who has an acting career on the side, was injured while participating in the Dancing With the Stars television show. Now they are back and have made it clear they plan to reclaim their way at the top, though they will also have to face off Brazilian competition in order to do so. They beat the Number 1 ranked team, 2009 world champions Jen Kessy and April Ross (also of the USA), twice in the last two weeks. But Walsh and May-Treanor lost to Franca and Silva in a close three-set final in Rome and Brazil now holds the FIVB world title in both the men's and women's division. Franca and Silva won medals in the three previous world tournaments but this is the first time they have captured the gold.
 
Getting back to China...
 
Attendance at the Beijing event was so sparse that at times it seemed that the crowd was outnumbered by cheerleaders. In an apparent face-saving measure that must have been planned in advance, a group of around 300 mostly middle-aged Chinese volunteer fans wearing matching t-shirts arrived for the weekend televised matches, but a crowd of several hundred does not do much to cover even the lower deck of the Chaoyang Park beach volleyball venue, built as a site for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.The low attendance is particularly ironic given that beach volleyball is said to be one of the most sought after events for ticketbuyers going to the London Olympics next year.
 
I'm not sure why no one came to watch in Beijing, but I have a few thoughts:
 
1) China's sports attending public is still significantly smaller than other countries in general and for beach volleyball in particular.
 
2) No Chinese teams advanced to the semi-finals in either the men's or women's divisions.
 
3) Ticket prices were too high. A door checker told me the price for tickets was 200rmb. If that was the price, it should have been dropped aobut 90 percent just to get people through the door. While plenty of people in China can afford 500rmb bottles of whisky and perfume, they're not going to sporting events. Dropping the ticket prices would have at least enabled a broader and younger audience a better opportunity to attend.
 
4) Limited publicity in local media. While there certainly were a number of photographers at the tournament, I didn't seem much coverage appearing in press outlets such as China Daily, which could have been used to publicize the event to an international audience.
 
5) Difficult access. Chaoyang Park's beach volleyball venue is not the easiest destination to reach using Beijing's messy public transportation network. I had enough trouble getting to and from there by taxi.
 
Hopefully, FIVB and Beijing sports authorities will be able to resolve at least some of these issues next year. Certainly, the event is a great feature to have. The Shanghai Open, which takes place on Jinshan Beach, does not have stellar attendance but draws a much larger crowd than the tournament in Beijing. The Shanghai Open is assisted by free admission and the relatively easy access to the volleyball venue for beach visitors
 
Some impressions from the turnament 
 

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Review of Bob Dylan’s Shanghai concert

by Jeremy Breningstall Monday 18 April 2011
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Bob Dylan covered five decades of his music during a nearly two-hour set at Shanghai Grand Stage last Friday night. The concert was attended by an international audience, with many languages peppering through the hall. Dylan began the show with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a lesser known song from his neo-Christian years before moving onto “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” a breakup folk song off the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album that he often plays in concert.
For the third song, with perhaps a nod toward his critics, Dylan performed “Things Have Changed,” a sly song from Wonder Boys that won Dylan an Oscar. “People are crazy and times are strange/ I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range/ I used to care, but things have changed/ This place ain’t doing me any good/ I’m in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood.”
The stage set was pretty spare with emphasis on the shadow Dylan against the back curtain rising up above the actual singer. The audience was quiet at first but grew more animated as the show went on, offering particularly loud cheers for “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Like A Rolling Stone.”
As is usual, the songs were reworked and the arrangements sounded quite different from the recorded versions. Still, it would have been hard not to immediate recognize the distinctive chords of classics like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”
My personal favorite from the evening was a power rock version of “Desolation Row.”
Dylan alternated between playing keyboards (with organ sound), harmonica and guitar. His band was solid; I’ve seen a few of the guys in the band play with him many times. Tony Garnier, the bassist, has been with Dylan for more than 20 years and lead guitarist Charlie Sexton has come and gone but has been a Dylan compatriot since the mid-80’s (when Sexton was a teenage prodigy).  
A fair number of tracks were from the Love & Theft and Modern Times albums and some audience members may not have been as familiar with them. There was loud cheering after “Forever Young,” the second encore song and it was a bit of a sad surprise when Dylan did not return to the stage (though I don’t think he often returns after the initial encore).
Security from my observation was pretty relaxed, I didn’t see anything resembling the Orwellian stories that came from the Beijing show. Dylan seemed pretty charged up to be there, drifting his vocals off into new tunes, not always on key but with a certain amount of charm. “Blind Willie McTell” was also a pretty powerful song.
Some critics have lamented that he didn’t play as many of his folk ballads from the 60’s like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” These songs would have been recognized by more members of the audience, but I also enjoyed seeing Dylan work through his newer material, some of which I’d never seen him perform live before (having been in China for a number of years now).
It’s taken 50 years of performing for Dylan to make it to Shanghai but hopefully this won’t be the last time he makes it to these shores.
 

By Jeremy Breningstall

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Bob Dylan in Shanghai

by Jeremy Breningstall Friday 18 March 2011
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According to our prior post about Bob Dylan coming to Shanghai we got some good news:

He has apparently gotten clearance for his China tour because tickets are now being distributed by mypiao.com. He will play at Shanghai Grand Stage on April 8.

Tickets can be reserved online.

This might be your only chance to see him in China so hurry and get your tickets.

 

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Help! I'm a party photo addict

by Jeremy Breningstall Friday 25 February 2011
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In the current issue of Time Out, Patrick Maxwell has a tongue-in-cheek column about "party porn" (of which he calls City Moments the "Bible").

In "Help! I'm a party photo addict!" he writes, "The thing about Shanghai party photos, and part of their appeal, is the sheer unexclusivity of them. To appear in a party photo in London, you generally need one or all of the following: an appearance in a Hollywood film, you own gallery, a triple-barrelled-surname or an aristocratic title. I've never been within a three-mile radius of a London party photo, and you I've been papped four times in China. Despite not getting out much, and not being half as good-looking as Mr. Riviera, people are generally surprised at how low this number is. I know girls who are in party photos every month."

If you can't stop yourself, take a look at 'em.

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Bob Dylan in China ?

by Jeremy Breningstall Tuesday 22 February 2011
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Rumor has it that Bob Dylan will be playing several venues in China, including Shanghai, this April. Of course the same rumor came around this time last year so we'll see if it comes true this time. The rumor would conform to Dylan's published tour dates, which include a concert in Singapore on April 15. If Dylan plays in China, it will have been long overdue... the Bobster has been a regular guest in Japan and all over the world. Btw, most of his catalog can be downloaded for free in China at www.google.cn/music. His newer releases (Including the mono recordings) can be easily found on the streets, my wife just picked me up a mono highlight CD for 25 RMB.

 

Stay tuned for updates!

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Life Journey

by Jeremy Breningstall Wednesday 02 February 2011
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Life Journey, a rock band on the Modern Sky label, came to Liuzhou, Guangxi for a hometown show January 29. With several band members’ parents in attendance, the show sounded a bit more poppish than usual. The band wore all red, their theme color for the moment. Avid fans waited outside the Happy Time bar to get into the 3 p.m. show (Happy Hour? In any case, efforts by this journalist to order a cocktail were unsuccessful). Word is the band is hard at work on a new album. Life Journey's music can be sampled here:  lifejourney

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LOgO on Xingfu Road: R.I.P.

by Jeremy Breningstall Sunday 23 January 2011
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Though I live a 20-minute walk away, I was never a great patron of LOgO. But when I heard they were reopening for a last hurrah Thursday, I had to swing by for a drink. In a neighborhood full of malls and Starbucks branches (I think there are eight of them within walking distance of my house), LOgO offered something unique and unpretentious for the wee hours- and a good jamming station for local and indie bands. The Xujiahui neighborhood (also losing Mao Livehouse) is particularly desperate for culture. LOgO’s cultural niche will now be relocated to partner station Lune, according to Laybozi.

 

By Jeremy Breningstall

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Selective focus: A few thoughts on budget cameras for 2010

by Jeremy Breningstall Saturday 25 December 2010
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My sister sent me a message the other day and asked what I thought of the FZ-35, an outgoing model Panasonic super-zoom point-and-shoot. “What do you want to use it for?” I asked her. How a camera will be used makes a big difference in which camera to recommend and I wanted to know why she was looking to upgrade from her current Canon Elph.
She told me she admired the pictures taken by colleagues at work that had selective focus (shallow depth of field) and she also wanted a camera that could freeze fast action.
I had to tell her that a consumer super-zoom isn’t likely to be good at achieving either goal.

Like most point-and-shoots, the FZ-35 has a 1/2.33” sensor, only a tiny fraction of a full-frame 35mm-size sensor. It also has a fast- but not overwhelmingly fast- lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. The combined dimensions are insufficient for strong subject isolation. The FZ-35’s small sensor also means it almost certainly is incapable of producing strong color photos at any ISO above 200- much too slow for fast action, especially in overcast light or indoors. Photos at higher ISOs on a 1/2.33” sensor will have both high digital noise and poor color range (the FZ-35 has a list ISO that going up to an incredulous 6400- clearly, camera marketers do believe there is a sucker born every minute). With no mirror, the FZ-35 is also reliant on contrast-detection autofocus- this kind of autofocus has improved substantially and Panasonic is on the cutting edge of its quickest speeds, but it still far slower than the phase detection autofocus used on conventional single lens reflex cameras (SLRs).

I don’t mean to pick on the Panasonic FZ-35- in many reviews last year, it placed in the top of its class. It’s better than most or all of its competitors. There are just inherent limitations to this genre of camera. Point-and-shoots are convenient to carry in the pocket but they cannot produce anything near the quality of a larger camera- though they can get some nice results in macro and snapshot photography.
Here a photo on Flickr illustrates the FZ-38 (same model) at its widest aperture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bishybarneybee/4926266900/.
A far extreme away is the full-frame Leica M9 with an f/1.0 lens: http://www.flickr.com/photos/futureancient/3923418056/. A depth of field this shallow is impossible on a point-and-shoot. But we don’t need a $9,000 camera to show the difference. Here is a more mortal example from a Canon 550D with an APS-C sensor: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boudster/4785848085/.
Of course, one could play around with blur actions in Adobe Photoshop, but this wouldn’t be quite the same now, would it?

On the other hand, there are some budget options that would fit the bill for selective focus and action photography. (If your independently wealthy or making loads of money off photography, go out and buy a Nikon D3x. But if your looking for something to capture high quality photos for less than 8,000 RMB, here are the best bets in ascending order of quality/price.)

1) Buy a high-grade compact. Offhand, I can think of at least three point and shoots with an aperture of f/2.0 or faster- critical for getting fast shutter speeds, also well as moderately selective focus. Of these, the one I would recommend most is the Panasonic LX5 (around 3,000 RMB). With its f/2.0 lens and 1/1.7” sensor, the LX5 has a dual advantage over its FZ35/FZ38/FZ40 siblings. Another popular option is the Canon S95- also with f/2.0 lens and a 1/1.7” sensor. It doesn’t focus as quickly as the LX5 but is more pocketable due to its retracting lens. Of course, 1/1.7” is still a fairly small sensor (reaching up to about 400 ISO of decent quality color photos) which leads us to option 2…
 
2) Buy a mirrorless, or EVIL (electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens) camera and a pancake lens. This is an emerging category. My personal favorite in this market so far is the underrated Samsung NX10 (4,600 RMB with 30mm lens). The press has generated far more buzz for micro four-thirds cameras such as the Panasonic GF-1 and the Olympus EP series (called micro four-thirds due to a slightly smaller sensor size- much larger than 1/1.7” but smaller than the APS-C sensor in most SLRs and NX10/Nex-5).
The Panasonics have (reasonably) fast contrast detection focus and the GH1, one of the early models, has been praised for its video ability. The great flaw of the G cameras is their poor high ISO performance- only a stop or so better than the LX5. The Olympus EP cameras have better ISO performance and in-body image stabilization- but mind-bogglingly slow autofocus.
The latest entrant in this field is the Sony Nex series- equipped with the best (mirrorless) APS-C sensors but the worst lenses and the clunkiest menu and a shutter noise that sounds to me like the factory scene in Dancer in the Dark.

There are also some fixed lens options. Fuji has a 35mm f/2 APS-C hybrid camera slated for a March 2011 release at around 7,000 RMB. Ricoh has a modular camera that is super overpriced, but well-reviewed. Picking up the Ricoh GXR and the 28mm f/2.5 module- well, that could easily run you a tab of around 8,000 RMB.
Not impressed by any of these? Fear not. It may not be the time to jump into the mirrorless market just yet. Nikon and Pentax are both rumored to have new releases being readied for a 2011 rollout- either of these legends should be able to surpass anything in the current EVIL market.
For overall quality, there is no replacement for option 3…

3) Buy a consumer SLR. Consumer SLRs don’t cost much more, (if anything) than the current lineup of mirrorless cameras and aren’t all that much heavier to carry, especially if you’re planning on using a zoom lens (when a zoom is attached to a mirrorless camera, much of its size advantage is lost).
SLRs offer a few key advantages:

-Faster focus
-Larger catalog of lenses to choose from
-Better quality sensors
-Faster overall performance
-Easier tracking in optical viewfinder
For catching fast action specifically, SLRs are the only good option.

Among recent releases, my favorite in the consumer category is the Pentax K-r (5,000-6,000 RMB). It is solidly built, fast-performing and it has stellar image quality for its class, along with in-body stabilization. For aspiring videographers, the Canon 60D (7,000 RMB) is attractive, with an articulating LCD among other features.

I would ignore certain claims made in advertisements by the major companies- such as 12,800 ISO or in-video autofocus. 12,800 ISO on your typical APS-C sensor looks like a late Monet painting and the video “autofocus” on Nikon’s new D7000 jolts like a taxi driver rushing through heavy traffic.  On the other hand, pay close attention to things like viewfinder size, frames per second, high ISO quality, dynamic range, lens compatibility, HD video formatting and in-body vs. in-lens image stabilization (the latter better for video, the former better for saving money).
If 5,000 RMB is too high, there are also uber-budget options like the Nikon D3100 and Sony A230 (I would not recommend a Sony, but that’s a personal thing). Canon 40Ds, still well-regarded, are available on the used market for around 3,000 RMB.

For people with a bit more money to spend, there is the Pentax K-5 (9,000 RMB) vs. Nikon D7000 (8,000 RMB) vs. Canon 7D (9,000 RMB) slugfest- my take is that all three of these are great cameras and consumers looking for a mid-range should choose the one that fits them best. Most reviews give the K-5 and D7000 an edge for image quality and the 7D the lead in video and autofocus.
Quality isn’t super cheap- there are no 500 RMB solutions here- but there are a lot of choices.
Now go and take some pictures.
 

By Jeremy Breningstall

 

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Three Hours with the “24 Hour DJ”

by Jeremy Breningstall Friday 03 December 2010
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“Trance has a fast paced tempo that ranges from 130 to 140 beats per minute, (compared with an average of 80-100 for Hip Hop), and tends to be layered with domineering synthesizers. It is a genre typically associated with dancing…” -National Public Radio (NPR)

“Trance music gives you a full journey, and I feel that some other dance-music styles don’t do that; they stick to one sound… You can get away with playing anything as long as you are taking [listeners] on a journey.”
-Armin van Buuren, Time Out Chicago

 
I arrived at M2 at 12:30 Saturday night to catch Armin van Buuren, billed by DJ Magazine four times in a row as the world’s No. 1 DJ and famed for his three- and sometimes 12-hour sets. U.S.-based NPR dubbed him the “24 Hour DJ.” Twenty minutes in the coat check line and I was through the door. The opening DJ was just finishing his set and the audience was crying out, “Armin! Armin!” in anticipation. People on the floor wielded blue glow batons. The evening sessions began. Van Buuren danced to the music, smiled to the audience, stretched his arms out wide, threw a hand up, dipped into a prayer motion, reached out to shake an audience members hands before security pushed the audience back, then circled back into the same routine. For a several songs, seductively clad dancers strolled out onto the runway midway through the club. Despite the cold air outside, the dance floor was a sweltering pit. My City Moments business cards were soon soaked in sweat.


Here was van Buuren’s formula as I saw it:

1) Act like you enjoy your job. From the beginning to the end, van Buuren looked and acted like he wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world.
2) Don’t stop the music. Van Buuren did not interrupt his show to give any seminars or call out any mantras.
3) Play music that is original but pleasing. The songs were all catchy and dance-able but Van Buuren shied away from saturated pop hits. He mostly kept the pace moving fast throughout but settled in for a ballad or two later on in the show.

After a few hours of photography, it was time for a drink. I flipped through the Moscow M2, a kind of blend between the Moscow Mule and mojito (vodka, ginger ale, mint leaves).
At the bar I ran into a guy who said he just arrived from Amsterdam, where he saw van Buuren perform in front of 17,000 people. “I don’t know what you’re doing besides for work,” this fellow said. “Be an artist. Take pictures of daily life. People back in the West really appreciate that.”
Turning to van Buuren, my newfound friend said, “I’ve got a lot of respect for this guy. He still lives in a normal house. He built a studio in the basement. He has kept the same friends.”
By now it had reached 4 a.m. and van Buuren had outlasted me. I had work to do the next morning and did not stick around to see if he lasted for 12 hours.

If you missed his set, you can always catch van Buuren through his radio show (see http://www.astateoftrance.com/ for details).

Van Buuren said of the show, "In all honesty, music — and radio — is just trembling air, nothing more nothing less. But its what that trembling air does to you and me as human beings is what's interesting to me. Music is essential for our lives, and when you listen to radio the focus is purely on that medium. Radio really gets to your soul, and that's what I like about it."

Also check out the pictures I took from that night (see http://shanghai.citymoments.cn/events/dj-armin-van-buuren--2/albums/904)

Jeremy Breningstall

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