Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tokyo Game Show: Gamers go all out

In Japan, it's surreal reality meets virtual reality.

By Jason Overdorf

TOKYO, Japan — High atop a 30-foot tower built to showcase Microsoft's new Xbox360 Kinect, Japanese models kitted out in short-shorts, pigtails and sneakers scrambled to kick their virtual selves into high gear before a giant, cinema-sized screen.

As they jumped and ducked, and their on-screen icons — the popular skateboarders from Sega's new Sonic Free Riders game — raced and soared through the technicolor virtual landscape, it was hard to draw the line between the real and the surreal.

And all around the colossal tower, a horde of headsetted gamers shuffled to the hypnotic screens of blockbuster "franchises" like Halo, Assassin's Creed, Final Fantasy and Medal of Honor.

Welcome to the Tokyo Game Show, otherwise known as "TGS."

While you weren't paying attention, the global videogame industry has surpassed the movie business and the music business to become the highest-grossing entertainment industry in the world — bringing in about $20 billion a year.

That's right. The premier of a top title like Halo: Reach, the latest in a series of futuristic war games developed by a company called Bungie, is as big an event as the opening of a new flick from James Cameron or Steven Spielberg — both of whom have put their names behind top-flight game titles.

Tripling the opening weekend gross of Inception, Halo: Reach alone did $200 million in business on the first day of sales, which coincided with TGS, held Sept. 16-19 in Tokyo's Makuhari Messe.

And gaming console technologies like Microsoft Kinect's motion-sensitive game play (which makes Nintendo's Wii look like Pong) and Nintendo's glasses-free 3DS are actually pushing the cutting edge of computing.

But what's on display at TGS is not so much the technological advances in gaming — where the West has actually outstripped Japan in recent years, with biggies like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty coming out of Scotland and California.

What's on display here is the leading edge of virtual culture, where games go mainstream, and your average "salary man" blurs the lines between the everyday and the pixelated world.

TGS, which started way back in 1996, plays host to the biggest names in the game business, including publishers, developers and console makers like Capcom, Electronic Arts, Sony and Microsoft.

This year, more than 200,000 people attended the show, driving home the point that while Japan may be smaller in the gaming industry than it once was, the gaming industry is bigger than ever in Japan.

With Japanese developers creating franchises like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear and Resident Evil, handheld gaming devices as ubiquitous as mobile phones, and an arcade on every Tokyo corner, the videogame industry accounts for an even larger share of the entertainment market here than it does on the down low in the West.

Coming into this world as a non-gamer is a little like walking the red carpet at the Oscars without ever having seen a movie.

Fully a third of the attendees — most of them apparently amateurs — were dressed in elaborate costumes, portraying characters from popular games, anime and manga series like Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist, or Gyakuten Saiban ("Ace Attorney").

And the outdoor hallways between the exhibition centers were quickly taken over for impromptu photo shoots as duplicate versions of silver-haired, emerald-eyed elves squared off to compare threads.

The running patter of the models playing Sega's Sonic Free Riders game, piped over monstrous speakers, was like the banter between the hosts of a bizarre variety show. The girls themselves were the flesh-and-blood versions of the pop-eyed pin-ups of the anime world.

Outside the pavilion for Monster Hunter — the second-hottest selling game in Japan at the time — the surreal meets real aspect of the show hit me the hardest. A long line of fans waited patiently for their turn to be photographed with inflatable versions of characters from the game, and then grab a chance to play the new version for the handheld Playstation or Nintendo DS.

And in the back of the booth, a doe-eyed human mannequin sat with her feet in a bubbling wooden hot tub — ersatz ancient Japan, I suppose — while a mad horde of photographers surged in to snap close-ups. The kewpie-doll-style model worked her lips and eyes like an automaton, in perfect imitation of some animated self.

American game makers may have surpassed Japan's. But when it comes to gamers, Tokyo is still streets ahead.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quran desecration catalyzes Kashmir violence

Analysis: Will playing off the Quran destruction story discredit separatist struggle?

By Jason Overdorf
September 14, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Hatred at India has been fueling violence in Kashmir all summer long. But it was an act of desecration against the Quran, thousands of miles away, that ultimately sparked the bloodiest day of Kashmir's summer.

Following reports that a protester tore pages out of the Muslim holy book in front of the White House on Sept. 11, at least 17 people died in violence across Kashmir — a sequence of events that exposed the faultlines criss-crossing this conflict. A political dispute over geography and self-determination, it cannot seem to escape getting enmeshed in the global struggle between the West and fundamentalist Islam — whatever the motivations of the primary players.

"There's a whole [dimension of] state politics that's just circulated around radical Islamism," said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, a conservative think tank. "[Leveraging issues like these] is a very dangerous game."

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with top administration and military officials to discuss possible moves to quiet the escalating unrest in Kashmir — including, reportedly, a climbdown on the hated law that allows the military to search homes, make arrests and shoot to kill civilians.

But any significant peace offerings Singh might have announced were stymied by an outpouring of anger in Kashmir, sparked by exaggerated Iranian reports of the desecration of the Quran in the U.S. and fueled by long-harbored frustrations over the military occupation of the disputed region.

Police shot and killed protesters who defied a curfew and took to the streets, in some cases attacking government installations and in one instance allegedly burning down a Christian school. According to local reports, the police alleged that politicians affiliated with the separatist Tehreek-e-Hurriyat party used the Quran story to encourage the violence.

"If this wasn't the basis for frustration and anger, then you would have had something else," said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. "It was inevitable in that there's such an angry mood, and the government's handling of it has been so inept. Any event that you could latch onto becomes one that you utilize to the best of your ability."

The danger in latching onto the Quran desecration is twofold. There is, of course, the danger of further radicalization of a population already incensed by decades of military occupation and thousands of cases of human rights violations — which could eventually lead to a resumption of an armed struggle for independence.

But there is also the danger that mixing too much religion into the fight will erode international sympathy and allow the government of India to dismiss the political dimensions of the separatist cause, which Kashmiris have been espousing for decades.

It's an idea that already has currency in New Delhi, where the separatist movement has been cast as a clandestine operation launched and funded from Pakistan.

"This is a pan-Islamicist movement," Sahni said in an interview with GlobalPost. "From the very outset ... the mobilization has been on the basis of pan-Islamism and radical Islam."

According to historian Ramachandra Guha, author of "India After Gandhi," fundamentalists co-opted the freedom struggle in Kashmir within a year after militancy began in 1989. The rallying cry changed swiftly from azaadi (freedom) to jihad (holy war).

Radicals pushed the local population to adopt the austere practices of fundamentalist Islam, shuttering cinema halls, banning smoking and drinking and ordering women to cover themselves from head to toe. But they didn't do it alone. The abuses of the Indian army pushed the local population to rally behind the separatists.

However, on the ground in Kashmir, observers say that the government of India is using the Quran desecration story to discredit the political struggle.

The present demands of the separatists do not have any religious character, and the ongoing cycle of protests has been raging for three months, during which Indian security forces have killed some 80 civilians. The separatists have demanded that India acknowledge that the dispute over Kashmir is an international one, begin the process of complete demilitarization, release political prisoners, end the killing and arrests of protesters, and prosecute the security personnel responsible for killing civilians.

"The Kashmir movement is an indigenous movement," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a prominent separatist leader. "It's anger against state repression. India has tried its level best to try to link these protests to Lashkar-e-Taiba or Pakistan or even Al Qaeda, but that's not the fact."

Ordinary Kashmiris themselves reject the tag of radicalism, claiming that the valley's syncretic tradition of Islam, steeped in the spiritualism of the sufis, is alive and well. But there's a sense, also, that the army cannot remain in control indefinitely, and the government cannot continue to suppress political protests, without that changing.

"By and large, people in Kashmir are not of violent temperament, and have not been associated too much with [pan-Islamist] concerns outside," said Noor Ahmad Baba, a professor at Kashmir University. "But if this situation continues, maybe it can gradually develop."

On Wednesday, Singh will head an all-party meet to discuss the government's options in Kashmir. But it appears he won't have room for any meaningful maneuvers. The escalation of violence has made a substantial dilution of the army's powers politically impossible, even as Singh's opponents in the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party clamor for taking a tough stance.

For the first time in a decade, Srinagar airport has been closed to commercial flights. A stringent curfew is in effect, with police under orders to shoot violators on sight. And the most hard-line separatists in Kashmir have announced an 11-day protest schedule, which will violate the curfew and inevitably result in more people killed by police bullets.

Meanwhile, as the big wigs pay lip service to addressing concerns about human rights violations in New Delhi, the security forces in Srinagar seem bound and determined to protect their own.

When a video surfaced on Facebook and YouTube last week that allegedly showed police officers parading a group of youths naked as punishment, there wasn't a murmur of outrage from official channels. Instead, a reminder was issued that it could not be ascertained from the video whether the footage was genuine.

Then, a spokesman for the Jammu and Kashmir police told the local press that they would be filing suit against Facebook and YouTube. And now, police have issued a press note alleging that "some miscreants are making repeated attempts to upload morphed pictures on Youtube against security forces to incite people" (sic). "With the latest missive in the battle for hearts and minds comes a reminder that uploading such pictures is punishable with a jail term of three years."

"Now the government is starting to crack down on people writing on Facebook [3]," said Farooq. "If the newer generation is becoming radicalized, it's because India is shrinking the space that's allowed to them."

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News

Sunday, September 12, 2010

bhutan overland

A Nepal-based company makes truck travel comfy.

By Jason Overdorf
Sept. 11, 2010

THIMPHU, Bhutan — About a mile from the India-Bhutan border, in the trash-strewn West Bengal town of Jaigaon, driver Nick Fulford wrestled with the gears of an enormous green-and-white Mercedes-Benz truck.

He heaved and slammed the stick shift as he wrenched the wheel around to swerve past bicycle rickshaws, scooters and unwary pedestrians. A big, ruddy bloke who looks like James Dean's less-fit cousin, he was probably the only United Kingdom national driving a big rig in India.

He was looking for the border, and, naturally, considering that I was navigator, he was lost.

"There was a sign back there that said something about immigration," I said.

"Do you think that's it? That can't be it. There'll be a checkpoint or something," Nick said.

He was right. But so was I. You can't actually enter Bhutan by accident. There is an ornate gate of sorts, with a couple guards in front of it. But they sent us back around the block — no small feat with an eight-ton tractor trailer in a small Indian town — to get our visas checked. The immigration officials were the friendliest I have ever met. About 20 minutes later, we rolled into Bhutan, the first group of "overlanders" to do it in a big rig.

This Bhutan journey is one of around a dozen trips that Australian truck driver-turned-entrepreneur Ben Grayling designed for his new company, Kathmandu-based Best of Asia Overland. Beginning in Kathmandu, the trip runs through Nepal's Chitwan National Park and India's Darjeeling and Gangtok before winding up the Bhutanese
mountains to Thimphu. But Grayling has developed a new model for overlanding.

Derived from an Australian stockmans' term for cattle drives, overlanding throughout the world relies on heavy trucks and off-road vehicles. But while its toughness has given it a cult following among young, once-in-a-lifetime adventurers, the hardships of its journeys have prevented traveling by truck from evolving into a very lucrative

A web community devoted to overlanding lists about 30 companies, the vast majority focused on Africa. The largest company, Dragoman, with its 25 trucks, only attracts around 4,000 clients a year. Grayling believes that's because the group size for the journeys is large, most trips are spent camping out, and travelers are assigned chores to keep the truck rolling. So to tap into the new market represented by
today's more adventurous older travelers, his company offers smaller, more comfortable boutique journeys — some of which will see the passengers "roughing it" in five-star hotels.

“We're basically trying to create a new market,” said 43-year-old Grayling, who worked for seven years as a driver and expedition leader for Dragoman before starting BOA.

Snowy, the refitted truck used on our pioneering journey into Bhutan, is equipped with room for only 14 passengers — giving the interior the spacious, sociable feel of an American retiree's “recreational vehicle” rather than an off-roading tour bus. There's a powerful air conditioning system, wet bar and refrigerator, and when fully
operational BOA-contractor Andrej Kmet — a Slovenian telecom whiz who was one of the eggheads behind the webcast of the first madman to ski down Everest — promises that Snowy will offer WiFi access and VoIP by tapping into local GPRS and 3G networks along the routes.

To complete the package, for itineraries that include a 25-night road trip from Kathmandu to Llasa, a 21-night haul through the deserts of Rajasthan, and a two-week tour of the "creme de la creme" of Nepal, among others, BOA has identified four- and five-star hotels like Nepal's Dwarikas and The Last Resort, India's Fateh Garh and Ajit Bhavan and Tibet's Hotel Manasarovar and Yak Hotel. “We offer the best
accommodation that's available,” Grayling said.

It's a bit like "flashpacking" — where laptop-toting backpackers rough it out on public transport so they can afford to crash in flash hotels. But the idea is also to take seasoned travelers off the beaten track. So Bhutan, which only opened its borders to tourism in 1974, was a natural choice.

Even if it has some ominous Big Brother-type aspects, the erstwhile king's commitment to expanding “gross national happiness” rather than gross national product has so far protected the country's natural beauty and cultural heritage. With a $200 per day minimum for foreigners, only around 25,000 tourists visit the country each year.
And Bhutan still has only one airport and no railway, so the only way to see the country is by road.

But in Asia's hinterlands, and especially India, there's no way to avoid discomfort. On this exploratory trip, passengers endured 16-hour drives and had to criss-cross India and Nepal by plane just to get started, thanks to political unrest in Kathmandu. Some of the Indian hotels were grotty, or just a step above. And we may have eaten one too many meals at the region's ubiquitous roadside "dhabas" for the
Saks Fifth Avenue crowd's tastes. In other words, it's still overlanding.

"We're going to call them boutique trips," Grayling said. "[As for] luxury, I'm not sure that quite works out. On all our trips there is some form of camping. But it's not your sleeping bag on the ground. In India, we have a camel safari where we use permanent tented accommodation, and on our high road to Lhasa trip, where we do actual camping, because we go to Mount Kailash, we've got a support vehicle
and crew, so when we arrive at the camp, everything is already set up, and the meal is being cooked."

Fortunately, there are no plans afoot to prevent passengers from playing navigator.


Thursday, September 09, 2010

US Open final is no "ping pong diplomacy" moment

There's a lot of hype surrounding the other sort of mixed double -- Indo-Pak -- making it to the finals of the US Open. But it's just that: hype. The fact is that individual Indians and Pakistanis have always been able to get along. Many of them are members of the same extended families. Cricketers are pretty amicable (OK, since neutral referees have been introduced), with folks like Shoaib Akhtar apparently preferring India over his homeland, thanks to the presence of a seemingly unending bevy of starlets. Same goes for Bollywood. Ok, India doesn't embrace Pakistan cinema or TV, but it certainly goes the other direction, and Pakistanis reportedly love folks like Shah Rukh Khan.

So why hasn't that brought peace to the Subcontinent? Because war and peace aren't decided by regular folks watching tennis and going to the movies. Or even, it seems, by elected officials.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Games construction spurs Delhi dengue outbreak

Commonwealth Games must battle spread of deadly fever.

By Jason Overdorf
September 5, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — With about a month to go before the opening ceremony of the already controversial 29th Commonwealth Games [2], Delhi bears the look of a mammoth construction site, as plucky migrant laborers scurry to build — and rebuild — roads and stadiums as they melt under the concrete- and asphalt-withering rains of the monsoon. But the worst news is yet to come.

Delhi's big dig has left stagnant water all over the city, breeding a huge swarm of aedes mosquitoes just in time for dengue fever season. As a result, Delhi is suffering a major epidemic at the absolute worst possible time. Already more than a thousand "official" cases of dengue fever have been reported, while independent reports suggest that the reality could be almost double that number. Malaysia and Australia have issued travel advisories and expressed concerns about their athletes, according to press reports [3], and at least 20 countries have written to Indian officials for reassurance. Worse still, Indian health officials say that the disease is set to peak just in time for the opening ceremony.

"This year, due to the construction activities for the Commonwealth Games, and the monsoon, which was a little bit delayed, there are innumerable breeding places for the aedes mosquito," said Dr. Kalpana Baruah, an official with India's National Vector Borne Disease Control Program. "Mosquito density has gone very high, and [because] we are having this virus circulating already in the area, immediately the dengue cases started pouring in. Now every day we are getting almost 60 to 70 new cases."

Even at those numbers, Municipal Corporation of Delhi officials say people's fears are exaggerated. "If you see the incidence of this disease in Thailand, it's much higher, and there has been no problem of visitors in Thailand," said Dr. N.K. Yadav, chief medical officer of the MCD health department. "Moreover, we are more proactive, and we are taking all preventive measures in the Games area and all over Delhi. I don't see any reason for alarm."

Nevertheless, alarm there is. And that's bad news for the games' planners, who oversold the event's ability to attract tourists — claiming they'd recoup most of the costs from travelers — before spending spiraled to $4.6 billion, or nine times the original estimate. So far, England's Queen Elizabeth and a host of top athletes have said they have prior commitments, and just 16,000 of the 170,000 tickets allotted for sale abroad have found takers. Mounting fears about dengue won't make selling the rest any easier.

Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive Mike Hooper downplayed the threat last week, saying that not a single member country had approached him with worries about dengue.

Meanwhile, in damage control mode at a press conference, Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the organizing committee, told reporters that 1,800 doctors will be on call to deal with dengue cases, and, separately, MCD officials announced they plan to fog the games venues with heavy duty insecticide.

Dengue results in extremely high fevers, and can be deadly, though the mortality rate has dropped considerably since 1996, when Delhi's worst outbreak saw more than 10,000 people infected and more than 400 killed. Transmitted by the aedes mosquito, the disease is endemic to India, along with virtually all of south and southeast Asia, but serious outbreaks are cyclical, waxing and waning with the monsoon and government enthusiasm for control programs. Even a mild case is misery. And there is no vaccine, and no real treatment, apart from paracetamol and fluids.

So far, around a thousand official cases of dengue have been reported in and around Delhi.

But because of a disagreement over testing methods and other factors, many cases go unregistered in the government tally. A recent television station survey [4], for example, found nearly 1,500 cases in just two area hospitals.

To fight back, local schools have told students to wear winter uniforms — with long-sleeved shirts and long pants. And there has been a run on mosquito repellent as local residents seek to protect themselves from the insects that carry the disease. Sales of mosquito-repelling sprays and lotions have doubled, according to local pharmacists, and supplies are beginning to run short.

The good news is that so far the death rate is low, with only three confirmed fatalities so far, according to the health department of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. But that's hardly inspiring to residents who can now add a deadly outbreak of disease to a list of games-related woes that includes the improper diversion of funds from programs for the historically oppressed Dalit caste, the expulsion of beggars and street vendors, and a day-and-night battle against colossal traffic jams.

Now, according to a poll conducted by the Times of India newspaper, a whopping 76 percent of residents say the whole exercise was a waste of money, while nearly half believe the fiasco and corruption of the preparations for the great showcase of India's rise has already damaged the country's image abroad.

With that in mind, and dengue-toting mosquitoes in the air, maybe it's just as well the queen won't be coming.

Friday, September 03, 2010

In Kashmir, inshallah, there will be football

A new documentary on Kashmir offers the opposite of "Invictus."

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - August 28, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — When Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar traveled to Kashmir for the first time, in 2009, to research a possible feature film, he discovered a true story that was more inspiring than fiction. He dropped everything and settled in to make a documentary.

Next month, the resulting film, "Inshallah, Football" [2] will premiere at the prestigious Pusan International Film Festival in Korea. The documentary tells the story of a young Argentinean coach who founds a soccer academy in Srinagar to bring so-called "stone pelters" off the killing streets and onto the soccer field. He places many of his players with local professional leagues.

But when he manages to get the team captain an opportunity to train with a professional club in Spain, Kashmir's troubled history emerges to block his efforts, as the government of India denies the boy a passport because two decades earlier his father had joined a militant separatist struggle for an independent Kashmir. At the eleventh hour, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah intervenes on the boy's behalf.

"It's the story of three remarkable men — one is his father who fought for his beliefs, another about the football coach who's come all the way from Argentina to start this football academy, and this young man who is struggling to play football," said Kumar.

That was a summer of hope. When I spoke with coach Juan Marcos Troia (aka "Marco") shortly after Kumar finished filming in 2009, Marco told me happily that his International Sports Academy Trust had trained about 1,000 young men from all over Kashmir — taking at least 50 from the armies of stone-throwing street protesters that plague local police.

He'd stuck it out even after he'd been beaten up by soldiers on the street just five minutes away from the soccer field, after they stopped him for questioning and suspected that he was only pretending to be a foreigner. He'd brought his wife and two daughters with him to Kashmir. The two girls attended school in Srinagar, despite soldiers and curfews, like ordinary Kashmiris. And Marco believed he was making a difference.

"I have seen how it [soccer] is helping to change the mentality of some of the officials in the government and how it's changing the mentality of the people," Troia said at the time. "It's very interesting to see in only two-and-a-half years, how much our program has helped not only football, but also the development of the society."

This summer, as Kumar readies his film, "Inshallah, Football" for Pusan, that hope has been crushed. Spiraling out of control since June, Kashmir seems locked into an escalating pattern of violence, as local residents take to the streets to protest the deaths of innocent civilians, only to see more of their number gunned down by the security forces. Over the past two months, more than 60 civilians have been killed, most of them teenagers. Sport is the last thing on anybody's mind, as local journalists bitterly describe decades-long careers as nothing more than "obituary writing."

"Everything has completely stopped," Kumar told me in a recent phone interview. "There's no chance of anybody getting anywhere. Marco had trained about 1,000 boys and he had them playing in professional leagues. The idea was to send all 11 players to train in Brazil on a scholarship. But in essence, I think the program has ground to a halt."

That makes his film more important than ever. And selection for the Pusan festival promises to attract a wider audience for a story that Kumar hopes will cut through what he describes as a simplistic, blinkered attitude about Kashmir.

"For me, it's a great opportunity," Kumar said. "It's Asia's biggest festival, and it's the right kind of place to show a film like this because it opens up a debate about Asia."

Following the lives of 18-year-old Basharat Bashir and his former militant father, "Inshallah, Football" offers an unusually hopeful perspective on Kashmir's cycle of violence.

But the contemporary events that now form the backdrop for its release make the hope it offers bittersweet. This summer's deadly confrontations have illustrated tragically that, where Kashmir is concerned, India keeps doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Thus, even as the Indian government struggles to win the loyalty of Kashmiris, the film illustrates, it is undermined at every turn by its inability to trust in its own democratic ideals.

And instead of a cricket bat or a soccer ball, local boys pick up stones to throw at the police.