Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Quick One While I'm Away

Not that I'm away yet, but it'll be a quick post this week, because I've been doing productive stuff like playing Skyrim and going to 49ers games. But I just wanted to give a quick rundown of one or two things I'm planning on doing on the blog soonish, and note that I'll be away the next two Sundays, as I'm flying off to Singapore for a week or so next Sunday.

Singapore will probably be the subject of an upcoming blog - since I set up my trip, a lot of people I know have said I'll struggle to find a week's worth of things to do there. I'm not so sure, and I want to (hopefully) prove them wrong. And if I'm bored the entire week, I'll report that on the blog too. Possibly even from an internet cafe in Singapore.

The other thing I'm sort of thinking of doing is a little essay on my train trip from London to Turin, which I took earlier this year. I took some notes while I was doing it, and hopefully I'll get something interesting out of it.

That's probably enough for now - I'm looking forward to the trip, and hope to spend the week getting nice and ready for it! See you soon!


Saturday, 16 August 2014

Thoughts on the Start of the 2014-15 Premiere League

The Premier League season started up again today, and I can't deny a twinge of nostalgia (you might even call it homesickness) for my days in London. It's always an exciting time of year - the football starts up again, and with it stuff like the BBC's Match of the Day, and all of the fantasy leagues from the various newspapers.

I have to count Match of the Day as one of the things I miss most, along with bacon sandwiches and Big Waterstones, the one on Piccadilly. For those who don't know, it's a roundup of the day's Premier League action, showing all the highlights from all the games, along with commentary from the BBC's regular team of top soccer pundits (and Alan Shearer, who always seems to be invited back).

It's kind of an institution, as it airs pretty late on Saturday nights, and on Sundays to show the highlights from that day's matches. This is actually pretty savvy programming by the BBC, if you think about it. Because chucking-out time at the nation's pubs is around 11pm, and MOTD usually starts between 10-11pm, it's a great come-down for a night out, and a chance to sober up with some water or something before you go to bed. Or, if you've been in all night, it's that perfect excuse to stay up just a little later, in case the movies on Channel 4 or Channel 5 aren't that appealing.

Now, it hasn't always been on the BBC, however - for a year or two, back in the early 2000's, rival network ITV got the rights to show the Premier League highlights, but I still remember the celebrations when it went back to the BBC. And despite not having grown up with MOTD, it felt right to me even then, if for no other reason than the iconic theme music:

A big reason for my nostalgia is that watching MOTD reminds me of the first time I lived in England. I was in Southend, just an hour east of London, and getting acquainted with the UK for real, after having visited several times in the previous six years.

One of the first things I learned then is that weekends are different in the UK than they are here. Here, everything's open pretty much as usual on Saturday and Sunday, but there it's almost impossible to get a haircut or a dinner of fish and chips on a Sunday, because those shops are all closed. Supermarkets and department stores will open before noon, but won't let you buy anything until the clock strikes 12 (seriously, I once saw a sales assistant at Debenhams refuse to even tell a customer where something was, because it was too early). Some shops proudly announce that they're open on Saturday, as if it's some new-fangled idea they've just come up with.

What this means is that you have to be super-organized if you want to get anything done on weekends. Either that, or you just sit at home and read the paper or keep an eye on the football scores as they come in. I do remember a lot of very pleasantly lazy Saturday and Sunday mornings where I did just that - leafing through the Guardian while listening to Radio 2 in the living room, with the sun shining on the Thames Estuary... It's hard to beat that.

Now, this will take a little explaining, but another of my pleasures was staying in on a Saturday afternoon and watching the scores come in on Sky Sports News. Sky Sports News didn't feature any game footage whatsoever (because evidently any trace of a man kicking a ball would have cost them billions in revenue from their pay-TV subscriptions).

What it did have was a newsroom full of men in suits and varying levels of agitation, relaying what was happening at each ground across the country. While Jeff Stelling read out the latest scores and scorers, you'd sometimes hear someone shouting in the background, as one of the presenters' teams had just scored. Occasionally they'd cut to Chris Kamara standing on the edges of a stadium, with the tiniest smear of green behind him, offering some hot air or other about what the result meant for the relegation race in the Second Division, as was.

But the best part was at the end of the afternoon, when they had someone read out all the scores, from each league. If you're a fan of mythical place-names, as I am, then you'd be in heaven - Sky went all the way down to the Conference, relaying what Hereford United and Shrewsbury Town had accomplished that day. And then the announcer would move to the farthest reaches of the Scottish Leagues, followed by the Welsh Premier. And every week - EVERY SINGLE WEEK - on hearing the results from Welsh team TNS, Jeff Stelling would crack the same joke: "They must be dancing in the streets of TNS tonight."

Admittedly, one of the main reasons for watching Sky Sports News on a Saturday afternoon was to keep an eye on my team in the office soccer fantasy league, which was rather competitive. But I don't know if that makes the preceding more or less sad, so I'll just move straight along.

I guess the reason I'm so nostalgic for those days, despite living in a dump and working in the worst company ever, is that I felt I could blow an afternoon that way, and not worry about whether I was Getting Things Done or anything like that. I sometimes berate myself a little bit for not having gotten my act together until around 2012 (when I started reading all the self-help and time-management books), but on the other hand, it is nice to remember the Saturdays and Sundays where I could unselfconsciously stay in bed all day, only venturing out for a burger or to do my washing at the laundromat.

Now I do silly things like sign up for half-marathons and try to keep my house clean. I guess that's growing up, but it's kind of a shame sometimes that as we get certain things more in control, we have less time to ourselves, instead of more. I feel like it should be the other way around.

At any rate, I'm unable to catch MOTD this season (unless someone wants to explain how I can torrent it), but at least I'll still be able to follow the Premier League - I've signed up for another office fantasy league. And it looks, from this first matchday, that I'm doing terribly. Nice to know some things never change.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Like pretty much everybody, I've been in shock the last couple of days, since hearing about Robin Williams's death. I hadn't followed his career much in recent years, so I didn't know about his personal struggles - as a result, the news that he was gone, ripped away by his own hand, caught me completely by surprise.

But he was an important figure from my childhood, having brought to life some amazing characters, so I'd like to offer my condolences to his family and friends, and for what it's worth, to let them know they aren't alone in mourning the loss of a talent like his.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

How I Met Your Mother: The Comic Novel Comes to TV

For the last few months, I've been obsessively hoovering up episodes of How I Met Your Mother on Netflix. I was spurred by sorta-kinda-almost spoilers that I absorbed by seeing headlines about the series finale, which aired in May. I had also admired the show from afar, as it were, for a few years - when I lived in London, it was on even more frequently than the Big Bang Theory (which is saying something), and the two shows were generally paired together on the same channels (Channel Four, E4, etc). I'd even started watching it sort of regularly when Season 8 came to the UK, so I caught the broad strokes of what was happening as it led into its last season.

It's kind of an odd show. As Donna Bowman notes in her series of episode recaps for the AV Club, it's a hybrid between the traditional sitcom (like BBT) and the newer single-camera sitcom (like Community, Modern Family, etc) - likely a result of the structure, in which the main character recounts the titular story to his kids, decades later. This allows for a lot of flashbacks, flash-forwards and other time- and camera-related shenanigans.

The structure also means that spoilers are kind of irrelevant. As I said above, the headlines that came out around the time the finale aired have given me a pretty good idea of how Ted's search turns out... and, perhaps oddly, it makes me want to see how they get there. Back in 2012 I touched on the whole spoiler controversy that we're having in the culture right now, and a month or so ago, again on the AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff spoke out against what he calls "spoiler paranoia", by noting in his first sentence that Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad.

If that last sentence pisses you off, I'm sorry (I'm not sorry). HIMYM is another show that effectively defies spoilers, by showing you - through its title and framing sequence - that Ted will meet the love of his life and have the two kids sitting on his couch; and throughout its nine seasons, it also states pretty much outright that none of Ted's girlfriends are the mother. The best example is in the pilot, where he describes meeting the perfect girl, has an amazing date with her and tells her he loves her... only to reveal to his kids in the last frame that she's their Aunt Robin.

I'm still impressed by how well that works, especially if my suspicions about the finale are correct. I also love the more minor spoilers that crop up every now and then. In an episode positing that single people automatically have more stamina for nights out than coupled-up people, we have a flash-forward to a wedding where Lily and Marshall leave early, but Ted and Robin decide to stay later. Except this is in Season 2, when they're a couple - so the writers are effectively telling you a month or two in advance that the relationship is doomed.

That's the reason that I call the show a novel for TV. I don't know exactly how far ahead the creators, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, plotted the show, but however they did it they managed to build a clockwork universe where, so far, pretty much everything that's been teased has paid off. It rewards close watching, for example by having Ted enter the bar wearing a dress in one episode, and not explaining what that was all about until a season or two later.

Like any good novel, the characters are also well-drawn, and generally more than one-note stereotypes. The closest to a one-note character that the show has is Barney, but in early seasons he demonstrates impressive, unhinted-at depths to his character, and then in later seasons he starts to grow out of the sleazy lothario persona we're initially introduced to. My favorite character has to be Marshall, though, because he's at once the most grown-up of the characters, by being the first to marry and have kids, and also the most child-like, with his belief in stuff like ghosts and Bigfoot. I also love his relationship with Lily, as it's pretty rare for a sitcom to show a married couple as enabling besties rather than a bored and frustrated couple (ie, "eh, the old ball-and-chain, am I right?"). That's pretty refreshing.

So I'm at Season 8 now, and coming up to the end of what's available on Netflix. Season 9 doesn't show up on DVD until 23 September, so I'm hoping the episodes will be available for streaming around that time too. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, don't tell me what happens! The show may defy spoilers, but I do want to see how we get to the end.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Importance of Authenticity

I'm currently reading Sushi and Beyond, by the British food/travel writer Michael Booth, wherein he travels to Japan to learn about the food culture there. It's a fascinating book (I'm about halfway through), which takes in both the basic building blocks of Japanese cuisine, such as dashi, as well as the more esoteric stuff, like nagashi-somen, a noodle dish prepared by launching a handful of somen down a river to the waiting diners. I'm less taken with his weird racism against Italians, but so be it, I guess.

It's also full of insights into how Japanese food is truly meant to be served. For instance, apparently miso soup belongs at the end of a meal, rather than the beginning - the way it's served in the West is how Chinese or Korean restaurant owners do it. It's a little like how Anglo-Saxon people serve salad as an appetizer, but for Italians it's served after the main course.

Naturally, when I read this little factoid about miso soup I got excited, and imagined myself saving my miso until the end of a Japanese meal - not to impress the staff with my authentic knowledge (the folks who run my local bento place in Mountain View speak Chinese to each other), but to experience the food the way it's meant to be experienced.

I can be kind of a douche like that sometimes.

The next thing that occurred to me was that saving my miso soup for last would probably mean drinking cold miso soup, which sounds kind of gross, and not particularly authentic either. And with that thought came the realization that it probably doesn't actually matter that much.

Any Japanese chefs who read this blog have probably removed me from their RSS readers by now, while the less insane among the remaining readers is likely wondering what the big deal is. But I sometimes think we're a little too obsessed with authenticity, and maybe a good meal (or book, or movie, or other experience) doesn't need to be so completely true to life that any variation is immediately suspect.

Here's another quick example: there's a Chinese market on the corner of the block where I work. In addition to Asian groceries and cheap little tea-sets, it also sells little statues. Some are likenesses of the Qin First Emperor's terracotta soldiers; others are of Hanuman the monkey-god, or of various other bodhisattvas.

They're clearly not genuine, I think every time I walk by. But what does "genuine" even mean in this context? The terracotta warriors are clearly not the ones dug from the earth in Xi'an - they're too small, and even if they were real, exporting them would probably carry the death penalty in China. Seems unlikely a bunch of hot 2,000 year old artifacts would find themselves in a shop window on Castro Street.

As for the Hanuman statues (which I think would enliven up my desk, if anyone's trying to think what to buy me for Christmas), I assume those are made in some factory in Macau, but if you're Buddhist, does that mean you can't pray to them? I don't get the sense the owners are trying to pass them off as genuine Ming-era statues or whatever (I have my suspicions about another shop just up the road, though).

I suppose it's the same with Christian artifacts - is a crucifix assembled in China last year less important than one made in Venice four hundred years ago? If you want them as decoration, maybe the older versions are more impressive, as far as bragging rights go. But if you want to use them as they were meant to be used - as devotional objects - the new ones probably do the job just as well.

The difference is probably that the Hanuman statues, like the Japanese meals, come from a different culture than the one us Westerners grew up with, no matter how comfortable we are with other cuisines or religions. It's easy to feel clever and worldly when you, say, get really good at using chopsticks, and it's just as easy to get all snotty and remind people that Thai food isn't eaten with chopsticks, so the fork and knife are fine (yep, I do that one all the time).

In the end the important thing is really how good the meal was, right? The fact that an authentic Japanese meal features miso soup at the end doesn't invalidate all the really good (but Westernized) meals I've had where it was served first. The experience may be better with the more authentic version; or it might not be. Same with those dodgy Hanuman statues - it may be cooler to have one that comes from the 14th century, but for my purposes (having a conversation piece on my desk) the one assembled in Macau two months ago does the job just as well.

Which isn't to say that I don't want to experience the real thing, at least as regards the food (I'm not quite rich enough to blow loads of cash on Buddhist statuary). It's good to know the difference between the authentic and the fake, just so you can say you've had it.

And honestly? I'm still really taken with that nagashi-somen river noodles idea. There must be some way to get that here, even if it isn't exactly perfect.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Paul Theroux's Happy Isles of Oceania: The Joys and Pitfalls of Rereading Books

In recent years I've discovered the pleasure of rereading books. This is a little different from my somewhat obsessive rereads of The Lord of the Rings before each of the movies came out (which reminds me - it's been a while since I read LotR...) - that was to try and get an idea of what I'd be seeing in the movies, but now it's to revisit books that I loved earlier in my life.

I guess it's nostalgia - while in the midst of my latest re-read (The Happy Isles of Oceania, by Paul Theroux), I kept thinking back to where I was the first time I read it, rather than the last time. I bought the book in 2002, if memory serves, while in a generalized race to buy as many interesting travel books as I could find. I picked up three of Theroux's mid-period travelogues, Bill Bryson's early jaunts through the US, Europe and Britain, and borrowed the rest from various libraries. Even back then, of course, I was rereading books - I think I polished off The Great Railway Bazaar three times in the nearly three years I had access to the Southend Library.

The point here is that it's true what they say - a book you reread at 35 is different from the book you read for the first time at 25. You notice different things, or you notice the same things but with a subtly different perspective. For instance, when I reread Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country (or Down Under, for UK readers), I was struck by how well I recognized his description of Circular Quay, in Sydney, because I'd been there since the last time I'd read the book.

There isn't as much of that with Theroux's book, partly because he allots fewer pages to Australia than Bryson did, and because he experienced different sides of the place than Bryson. Theroux's first marriage had just broken up when he arrived down under, and it colored his experience of the people, in addition to driving him to different spots. I think that's also the reason that Theroux is so scathing about the Australians, attributing to them a sort of bungaloid (one of his favorite words) feral-ness that, if I'm honest, I recognize more in the English. Insults veiled as "being matey", for example, figure prominently in Theroux's description of Australians, whereas I always found the English more likely to do that to me.

The other interesting difference between the two narratives is how the Australians see their convict past - while Bryson tells of feeling the temperature in the room drop when he makes a joke about it, Theroux claims that the Australians revel in it. It comes off a bit like a Victorian gentleman finding himself plopped unaccountably in a rough East End hostelry.

Part of the difference, of course, must be attributable to when the two writers visited. Theroux was there in the run-up to the Gulf War in 1991, while Bryson went at the end of the 90s. Australia's a pretty fast-evolving country, so it's not unthinkable that general attitudes toward their own past would have changed significantly.

Another thing that fascinated me on this latest re-read of Happy Isles was Theroux's preoccupation with the Japanese. Everywhere he goes in the Pacific he sees evidence of what he calls "Nipponization" - island resorts built to cater exclusively to the newly ascendant Japanese, whom (at the time) everyone thought were trying to conquer the world by buying it all up.

In fairness, Theroux in his book does also decry the Americanization and Frenchification of certain other parts of the Pacific: American Samoa is presented as a welfare state, ruined by spam and Rambo movies (it's interesting how many times he refers to Rambo throughout the book), while his thoughts on Tahiti are a way to present how French foreign and colonial policy is as arrogant, short-sighted and disgusting as anything the US, or Russia, or anyone else can muster.

But the Japanese bear the brunt of his distaste, and at times in language that spills into overt racism. In the Solomon Islands he gets a permit from a cabinet minister (who incidentally became Prime Minister a few years later) to visit another island, and to ingratiate himself describes the Japanese in the following terms:
"... it is a one-race, one-language, one-family island of desperate overachievers who have a fascist belief in their own racial superiority... These little people have a palpitating need to dominate the rest of the world and will do anything at all to sell their stuff."
He goes on to suggest that they're cheating the Solomon Islanders (which may very well have been accurate). It's true that the Japanese have a pretty insular and self-involved way of defining the world - but I don't see it as any different from how the Chinese, the Russians, Americans or Europeans see the world. Me nambawan, uddapela nambaten. The Japanese, to my knowledge, haven't destabilized countries and let in murderous dictators, all in the name of preserving free market capitalism - in marked contrast to the United States (just ask Chile). At least, not since WWII.

What really bugs me is the "little people" comment, and the portrayal of the Japanese in other sections as these alien creatures goggling at everything through a camera lens. There's almost a feeling that anybody else taking over and building these "Nipponized" resorts and goggling at topless white women  on Australian beaches would be okay, as long as it isn't the Japanese. Later on in that screed he calls them frugal savers, and says their banks are the richest in the world. Again, could be strictly true - but it's couched in terms that sound a lot like anti-Semitism.

I understand that certain segments of the American populace felt threatened by the Japanese at the time, and I sympathize with folks like Detroit auto-workers - although not with the Big Three carmakers, because the Japanese car industry beat ours because they were building better cars than us, pure and simple. I'm just surprised by how vehemently Theroux, who at the time was likely a Democrat, talks about how the Japanese are ruining the Pacific (he seems to have turned into a crank now, though, railing against Obamacare, bizarrely).

It's a shame that he kept those passages in the book, because by the end of the decade, Japan was no longer the all-consuming juggernaut and is still being dragged down by its lost decade. The Chinese have arisen as the country that Western observers expect to become the next great power, although we'll see what happens to them.

But those passages, and all the references to the "sons of Nippon" and the "Nipponized resorts", mar a book that's otherwise beautiful and unique - after all, when was the last time you read anything at all about what it's like in the South Pacific?

I've finished Happy Isles now, and am probably not going to read it again for a while. But it was fascinating getting back in touch with the Francis who read it 12 years ago, and a little disheartening seeing how short-sighted some of those racist passages were. I'm interested to see what I notice next time I read it.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

World Cup 2014 Wrap-Up

Yes, I know I'm running late with this. Had a couple of dates to go on between when the final aired and now, so this is actually the first chance I've had to sit down and think about the World Cup final, between Germany and Argentina.

So anyway: Germany wins, becomes first European team to win in Western Hemisphere, finally fulfills the promise of the last 8 years. Lots of newsworthy stuff in this one, eh?

OK, don't call me Statto anymore

If nothing else, this World Cup taught the transience of statistics. My initial guess, that Brazil would win the entire tournament, was based on the home region and home country advantage. This was because South American teams were the only ones who'd ever won in either North or South America. More to the point, I figured that Brazil would be hungrier to win it since the Maracanazo of 1950.

Problem is, as I believe they say in the army, skill beats will every time. Hunger to win is the decider when two teams are evenly matched - but as Germany proved in the semi-final, they were on a completely different planet than Brazil.

To give the guys from the Guardian their due, they did discuss this, and how there was strictly speaking no reason for European teams' inability to travel well. As I acknowledged, the stats were against Germany winning, because no European team had ever managed it. But now that it's happened, there's no reason to expect that it can't happen again, or that a South American team can't go on and win in Europe (again).

In this case, it's worth remembering the old adage from investing: past performance is no guarantee of future results. Stats on whoever has won or never won at a certain stage are only stats, and betting too heavily on them will probably leave you broke. This even holds true for the Dutch team, of course - there's no reason for them to constantly fail at the last hurdle, but they always do. And when they finally don't, that stat will be meaningless.

German engineering

In fact, the German win might give the Dutch a nice boost of confidence. Much was made during this World Cup of how Germany has reached the last two semi-finals (and the final before that), and of how close they came in the 2008 and 2012 European Championships. It was becoming something of a cliche how they would play amazing football, but never progress beyond the semi-final.

Clearly, whatever tinkering Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw have done since Klinsmann took over after Euro 2004 finally came to fruition this year. And it's important to note that Germany has been the most consistent team of the last ten years or so - Spain may have won three tournaments on the hop, including by beating the Germans, but Germany was always there, while the other semi-finalists frequently changed.

It's debatable whether or not Germany will go on to a streak like Spain's, though. They'll surely be favorites to win the Euros in 2016, as almost all of this team will still be playing, but (and I'm resorting to stats again, but bear with me) it's been extremely rare for World Cup winners to defend their title, especially in the last few years. The fact is, a lot can happen in four years - players can drop out, form can fail, and Löw's contract is currently only good until 2016. He could very well get an extension - or he could get fired or resign.

And Germany's rivals will likely find ways to play around them. It may not be as dramatic as Spain's collapse this year, but Germany will at some point go through another dark period. It is, after all, 24 years since they last won a World Cup.

Looking ahead

In any case, if it seems silly to guess what'll happen in four years, I'm still happy to do so. It's safe to say that CONMEBOL and UEFA will continue to dominate the tournament when it comes to Russia. The very best teams will have rebuilt by then, and the mid-tier teams can also expect to book their tickets (the US, Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria, South Korea). If Klinsmann is still coaching the US, they may break their streak of never winning a competitive game on European soil - or they might not.

Of course, the next World Cup might not even be held in Russia. This is probably a bit fanciful, given all the attention on Qatar's dodgy-in-the-extreme tournament, but if Russia embroils itself in another war, it might not be safe or stable enough to hold a tournament there.

That's extremely speculative, of course. And if I'm being cynical, I'll note that Russia would likely wait until after the tournament to start back in on its geopolitical shenanigans. But it's also true that the US is generally held as a reserve host when observers complain about lack of readiness at a host country (as they did with Brazil, and if memory serves, South Africa).

I hope the US gets it again, most likely in 2022, when it's stripped from Qatar. I'd like to be able to attend in person someday, and it might be when the team finally wins it.