Sunday, 8 May 2016

Congratulations to Leicester City, the 2015-16 Premier League Champions



I've already talked about what this would mean, if it were to happen, but that was then, when it was only possible, and this is now, when it's actually happened. Claudio Ranieri really has won a title, Jamie Vardy has worked his way up from non-league to owning a champion's medal, and a deeply unfancied team has gone on to win the Premier League and upset the natural order of top-flight English football.

Of course, I don't want to get too swept away here. Chelsea and Manchester City are going to invest heavily after their respective train-wrecks, and Leicester themselves are going to have to deal with yet another competition to sap their focus - the Champions League.

If Manchester City and Chelsea have screwed the pooch this season, the likes of Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich haven't had similar stumbles. Or rather, they have, in that Juve had a shitty start to their season (but then embarked on a ridiculous unbeaten streak to win Serie A) and Barcelona won't be able to confirm their champion status until the final day. But you take my point.

Still, I also don't want to be too gloomy. It will be interesting to see how Leicester gets on against the very best of Europe, having earned their right to be there. If they can keep the core of their team together (and why shouldn't they? Riyad Mahrez or Jamie Vardy or N'Golo Kanté don't need to move anywhere else to find Champions League football), they can at least have a good go at it. If Barcelona or Real Madrid beat them, they'll still have made it to the party.

The other question will be how Leicester get on in the Premier League next season. There'll be a lot of teams gunning for them, and they'll be desperate to strengthen. It'll just be harder for Leicester to repeat this year's achievement - but on the other hand, it'd be boring if they did (and I say this as a Juve fan who's hoping that the rest of Serie A can mount a challenge to my team).

Whatever happens next season, the importance of Leicester winning this season is incalculable: they've shown how other teams can do it. And now that the TV deal funds are trickling down to the mid-level clubs, it will be easier for other teams to do it.

Friday, 29 April 2016

2016: The Year the Music Died

I'm clearly not the only person noticing how ridiculously many high-profile celebrity deaths there have been this year. I remember surfing to the AV Club late one night, unable to sleep, and discovering that David Bowie had died - followed by the sick feeling as Alan Rickman passed away, followed by (among others) Garry Shandling, and now Prince.

It feels like even before Prince died I was joking (somewhat darkly) to myself that every visit to the AV Club portended another celebrity death. And I haven't done any RIP posts on Shandling or Prince because, in all honesty, I wasn't that familiar with their work. Both certainly influenced a lot of artists that I like, and finding out more about their work is something I'm looking forward to (heck, I'm even considering signing up to Tidal, because Prince's music isn't on YouTube or Spotify).

But my other thought about all these deaths is, are we really seeing more deaths than usual? I'm not about to do a meta-analysis of recent years, to determine whether we've really seen the highest number - there's a line even I won't cross.

And besides, what I'm questioning is whether or not we're only noticing this now because it's a certain cohort of entertainers who are disappearing. Bowie is most associated with the 70s, Prince with the 80s, and you could map Rickman and Shandling in a similar way. None of them was ridiculously old, but neither were they kids (although I concede that Prince's death at 57 or Phife Dawg's at 45 are particularly untimely).

I guess the point I'm making is, none of us is getting any younger, and the deaths we're used to are the ones that affect our parents (or grandparents). Our cohort of musicians, actors, writers, etc is generally older than we are, and bad things can happen at any time, so I suspect that this is just going to be the new normal. I think it would be more worrying if we were seeing younger cohorts all passing away suddenly at the same time - to give a particularly nerdy example, the original cast of Babylon 5, which aired in the 1990s, has effectively been decimated, while the original Star Trek's cast is mostly still around, even if they're much older.

Maybe this is all too morbid for a Friday night, but for all the unfortunate news about all these celebrity deaths, I think we need to settle in for it to continue. Just... if whoever's in charge of this could ease off for a few months, that would be great too.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

In Defense of Learning Useless Skills, or, Why You Should Learn Portuguese

So here's a weird thing that's been happening all weekend. Whenever I've mentioned to someone that I'm learning Portuguese, their first reaction has been, "Why?"

My response has generally been, "Why not?", which I'm told isn't always a satisfying answer (my reply to that is invariably also, "Why not?"). But I find it striking that one of the world's most spoken languages is so invisible.

Brazil has 205 million Portuguese speakers, there are 10 million more in Portugal, and this number goes up when you include speakers in Africa (like Angola) and Asia (like East Timor). Brazil is the largest country in South America, and the largest economy, which is why Portuguese is one of the official languages of Mercosur, the regional trading bloc.

This all makes Portuguese the sixth most-spoken language in the world, and Brazil is the fifth largest country by population - more people speak Portuguese than Italian or German, for instance, both languages that are much more popular among language students. And yet here in the US, we don't have any real understanding of the place. Europe has maybe a tiny bit more understanding of Brazil, but I'd argue that (Portugal aside) that's mostly because of all the Brazilian footballers who pitch up to play in Europe.

But I'm not here to talk up Brazil or the Portuguese language, or even to defend why I'm learning it. I'm actually slightly more interested in the question of why I need to defend learning it in the first place.

It turns out to be a really interesting moment for language learning. Like a lot of folks, I'm currently using Duolingo, but also other apps (like Mango or even YouTube). I believe these apps are so popular because they're free and don't require users to learn languages in specific places, at specific times. Duo's particular genius (beyond gamifying the process of language learning) is also to crowdsource the creation of language courses, which means that if you can get together enough people you can design a course in Dutch, Turkish, even Irish or Esperanto.

I think for the dedicated language-learning community, there's probably no language that needs justification. But whereas knowledge of certain languages used to be assumed among the erudite (French, Latin and Greek, to be precise), now there seems to be this idea that you have to have a specific purpose for learning a language, and that it has to be "useful". For instance, I recently saw a post from Robert Reich on Facebook lamenting that he'd learned French instead of Spanish, because of demographic pressures that mean Spanish is the most widely spoken second language in the US.

But by knowing French, Robert Reich has access to the wide range of French art, literature and cinema that have come down through the years, and he can go visit not only Europe, but large parts of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as parts of Southeast Asia (and Quebec or Louisiana). This isn't to slight the literary and cultural canon of the Spanish-speaking world, but I find his comments a tiny bit odd.

In my own case, I chose to learn German for the noblest of reasons (a crush on a German-speaking Swiss girl in high school), but it ended up opening a bunch of doors that I never expected it to - by continuing my German studies in college, I was then able to go study in Germany for a year, which led to my first job, my graduate school course and all of my subsequent jobs.

This is because nobody seems to be learning German anymore (my high school no longer offers it). Yet Germany remains one of the world's largest economies, even if it's not on the level of China or India. Also, while English-speakers are pretty common in Germany, I wouldn't say English-language skills are as universal as they are in the Netherlands or Scandinavia. So if you need to find out what's happening in Germany's pharmaceutical or telecoms sector, you're better off finding someone who knows the language.

(As an aside, I feel this is a great example of why immigration helps a country. As an immigrant in the UK, I wasn't taking jobs away from British graduates - because there apparently weren't any who spoke German and were looking for these kinds of jobs. My employers - three of them in this case - were all forced to hire me, an immigrant, because the supply of native-born German-speakers was insufficient. Food for thought).

The point I'm making with my own history is that if you make an effort to learn a certain skill, regardless of how "useful" it'll be, having that skill opens up opportunities that you may never have considered. Wanting to do something specific with a language skill (or any other skill) is fine, but if someone has to choose between learning a "useful" language and one that interests them, I'd always go with the one that interests them. It'll help them keep going when they run into difficulties, for one thing, and the uses will come up later, when they've mastered the skill.

Just as importantly, it shows the importance of fishing in waters that aren't too crowded. A friend once suggested that he'd want his kids to learn Mandarin Chinese, so that they'd be better placed to get jobs when they grow up. This isn't faulty reasoning, but how will that differentiate them from all the other graduates their age whose parents had the same idea? I told him to get them started on coding instead, because there's still likely to be a skills gap for that when they're older.

I'm finding that, more and more, the thing that makes someone attractive to employers (and possibly to acquaintances, romantic partners, etc) is a mix of skills, rather than specialization in one specific thing that everybody's also doing. And learning languages - particularly the "less useful" ones - is going to be a force multiplier as the globalized world becomes more connected.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Gosh, but Batman vs Superman looks unappealing

You know what? I'm probably not going to go see Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice in theaters.

I've been thinking about this for a few days, ever since I started to see reviews. The reviews I've read have all singled out the humorlessness, violence and borderline fascism of the characters, and so I'm here to say, enough. I didn't enjoy Man of Steel, the film of which BvS is a sequel (or to be precise, I liked it in the moment and have liked it less every time I've thought about it since), and I'm getting frustrated with the world-building in movie franchises, which I kind of believe has been responsible for ruining comics. So I'm done.

Partly I'm also inspired by the AV Club's essay this week asking why everyone's always so determined to see Batman fight Superman. As the author, Tim O'Neil, points out, there are two essential problems with that scenario:

1. Batman and Superman are pals. Leaving aside the silly, sitcom-like stories of the 50s, where Lois Lane was trying to scam on both of them, O'Neil argues (rightly) that they're both working toward the same thing - justice.

2. The other thing is that there's really no contest. Unless Batman is *really* prepared, Superman's going to take him out as easily as you or I can crush a bug. This isn't an attempt to be inflammatory or stake my space in the fanboy wars - if you accept that Superman's the most powerful being on Earth, it's simple logic that he could destroy Batman before Batman even knew he was in trouble. Mark Waid touches on this a bit in his series Irredeemable, which is effectively a "Superman goes crazy" story.

Now, there are good story reasons why you'd pit the two characters against one another, notably Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Mark Waid & Alex Ross's Kingdom Come, and I'm rather taken myself with the idea of Batman being able to take out Superman (see? *That's* my spot in the fanboy wars). And from what I know of BvS, Batman's mistrust of Superman does sound reasonable, given the awful, headache-inducing violence of Man of Steel.

But that previous film was based on a fundamental misreading of the character of Superman. I've listened to a couple of podcasts where David Goyer, the film's writer, has justified the decisions he made for that film - or rather, where he justified the bit about Superman killing Zod.

The way Goyer explained it, Superman at that point in his life didn't know how to neutralize Zod without killing him, or to put it another way, hadn't yet learned how to be Superman. But...

The story of how Superman kills Zod in the comics is about him being forced into an action that betrays his core principles, and about how he deals with that decision for the rest of his life. Nothing that I've seen of Goyer and director Zack Snyder's Superman suggests that they are interested in telling that kind of story. Rather, they seem to be more interested in telling a post-modern Superman story, insofar as I understand post-modernism to be "the New Unpleasantness". And gosh, is this latest version of Superman (and Batman) unpleasant.

You may ask why I'm so worked up about this. After all, it's just a movie, the season's first summer tentpole actioner, to throw a bunch of (possibly incorrect) movie jargon at you. It's also essentially the same plot as the upcoming Captain America film, Civil War, which will pit Cap against Iron Man. But I'd argue that taking two symbols of post-war American culture and turning them into amoral, sociopathic fascists does matter.

We're at a pretty dangerous point in our culture right now: there are existential threats at home (yes, sorry, but I have to call Donald Drumpf and Ted Cruz existential threats to America) and abroad (IS and al Qaeda). We're also seeing a diminution of our status abroad, owing to a string of really shitty choices we've been making since the end of World War II (you thought I was going to say 9/11, didn't you?), and we're responding by crawling back into isolationism, xenophobia and complete mistrust in "the establishment".

Batman and Superman once represented ideals that were admirable. One was the pinnacle of human perfection, aimed at the cause of eradicating crime and ensuring that no one else would suffer the same trauma he experienced. The other was meant to be the personification of America's highest and best ideals, fighting injustice with the physical strength that was (and still is) denied to common people.

But now we've bought into the fundamental misunderstanding of these characters as sociopaths and aloof demigods, and it reflects our own feelings of powerlessness as our jobs disappear and as the world (seemingly) grows more violent and dangerous every day. Batman and Superman have gone from being symbols of hope to stand-ins for the increasingly aloof political class that's consolidated its power through gerrymandering, fear-mongering and immoral campaign financing laws.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. We know what's right, and it isn't murdering terrorists' families or allowing politicians to pit us against each other. It's also not supporting a film that, from all accounts, plays into our own worst impulses.

Or, to put it in terms of another Batman movie, BvS is neither the superhero film we need, nor the one we deserve. Go watch the Flash instead, and have some fun.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Grimm: how a bad show becomes better

My latest TV obsession, beyond the CW's Arrow and Flash, and my rewatch of Batman: the Animated Series, has been NBC's supernatural cop show, Grimm. Not too long ago I'd have put it down as a guilty pleasure, something schlocky but fun, but over the course of four full seasons, and a fifth season in progress, it's turned into a pretty decent show.

The premise is of a Portland cop who discovers that he can see monsters from out of legend, and that he has the power to hunt them. I kind of need to talk about what happens at various points, so consider this your spoiler warning:

It's always fun to dust this picture off, btw.

When it started, Grimm was, as I said, just a bit schlocky - Nick Burckhardt, the hero, is essentially a super-hero who fights enemies with bizarre (and mispronounced) German names - for instance, werewolves are known as "Blutbaden", which translates to bloodbath. Over time he draws more and more characters into his secret world, from his partner Hank, to his Blutbad friend Monroe and finally his girlfriend, Juliette.

Juliette, unfortunately, was a character that they didn't know what to do with, almost from the very start, and so she would get saddled with some pretty dumb storylines. One example is the beginning of the second season, where she's placed under a spell in which she doesn't remember Nick, and is madly in love with his boss, Sean Renard, into the bargain.

And yet, when they decided to turn her into a Hexenbiest in Season 4, that quickly became the show's high point, as everybody's shocked reactions to her new powers quickly pushed her toward the dark side. I was left totally holy-shitted at the end of the season, where she goes so evil that she causes the death of Nick's mom and then gets killed herself.

She now seems to be back, because in superhero stories death is never the end, but what I love is that all of it, from her evil-ness to her death and her re-emergence working for a secret organization, feels organic. Not only was she given an incredible level of power, but the fact that the people around her, including her fiance, quickly became afraid of her, felt like the most logical choices to take her story.

I mean, ignoring the facts of how she got her powers, which is a little bit ridiculously complicated, but let's move on...

I suppose what I find fascinating about the show is that it started out, as I said, little more than a guilty pleasure. A bunch of storylines failed to go anywhere over the course of the first few seasons, characters have changed sides more times than I can count, but somehow, the creators still managed to pull it all together into something that I don't feel I have to hide anymore.

For a show to start out bad and then turn good isn't so atypical, but what's remarkable is that Grimm has managed to do it at the end of its fourth season. Star Trek: the Next Generation, for example, didn't get good until its third season, while the Big Bang Theory only hit its stride in Season 2 (and now is pretty bad again).

The other interesting thing about Grimm is, as of Season 4 it was NBC's second-longest running drama, after Law & Order: SVU. Clearly it was doing just well enough in its time slot for NBC to keep it going, and that consistency has allowed its writers to figure out its strengths.

Which is, I suppose, yet another example of why consistency is so important, whether in physical pursuits or creative ones. I just hope that Grimm can maintain this streak of quality long enough to take the show in for a dignified landing, unlike (for example) the X-Files, which dropped off pretty sharply in quality around its sixth season.

But I think that even if Grimm does drop off again, I'll still be able to come back for the bad German pronunciations and the laughable CGI. Not everything can be Mr. Robot, can it?

Monday, 15 February 2016

Why I want Leicester City to win the Premier League

Like a lot of folks, I've been following this year's English Premier League title race more avidly than usual, for the simple reason that, in a lot of ways, the table's been turned upside down. There's still about a third of the season left, so any of the traditional powers could reassert themselves, but the main highlight has been how Premiership minnows Leicester City have managed to carve out a place for themselves at the top, after having come so close last year to being relegated.

At the moment there are four title contenders: Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City. Winning would be a great narrative for any of these teams, although to different degrees (oddly enough, in the order that I've listed them, which also happens to be their ranking in the league as of this past weekend). But I'm more invested in Leicester winning, for a number of reasons.

The first is the fairytale aspect of it all. As I said, they came within a few games of being relegated last season, and managed to save themselves in the last seven matches of the season. I think everybody was expecting them to go down this season, but instead they've carried on their form and now sit, quite improbably, in first place. More importantly, if they win the league, this will be their first top-flight title ever - their highest placing was second, in the 1920s - and this will be the first time since 1995 that a less-fancied team wins the title (Blackburn being the champions that year).

Another reason I'm hoping Leicester wins this season is Claudio Ranieri, the manager they hired for the start of this title campaign. For years, he had a reputation in English football as the "tinkerman", a kind of buffoonish figure who couldn't leave well enough alone. He was the manager of Chelsea when Roman Abramovich bought the club, and was let go somewhat shabbily after having guided them to second place.

After leaving Chelsea, Ranieri bounced around Europe, including stints back at home in Italy, but his star was possibly at its lowest ebb ever when Leicester hired him, as he'd just come off a disastrous four-match spell in charge of the Greek national team. He'd just overseen Greece failing to qualify for the upcoming European Championships, and guided the Greeks to two losses (home and away) against the Faroe Islands, a country of about 57,000 way out in the North Sea whose main claim to fame is puffins and sheep. So folks in England were justifiably apprehensive when he was hired, but I'm pleased to see that he's confounded all the doubters and rescued his reputation.

The third reason I'm hoping Leicester win it all is their main striker, Jamie Vardy. He was plying his trade further down the divisions not long ago, at the likes of Stocksbridge Park Steels and Fleetwood Town, but from there has helped fire Leicester into first, while also picking up a record for scoring in the most consecutive games since Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Admittedly Vardy's had something of a checkered past, having been tagged for assault and racial abuse, but the signs seem to point to a real rehabilitation, which can only have helped his focus on his way to this record. Apparently there's even a screenwriter following him around, with the intention of writing a Jamie Vardy biopic.

Of course, Vardy's achievement isn't meant to overshadow the rest of his teammates, including Riyad Mahrez, the French-born Algerian international player who's also emerged from the obscurity of the lower leagues to make a name for himself, or Robert Huth, a German defender who also seemed to disappear after leaving Chelsea.

So these are the reasons I'm rooting for Leicester, and why I'm sure large parts of the English public are too (apart from fans of local rivals Coventry, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, of course). In fact, my cousin in Italy tells me that people there are following Leicester's exploits too, so it wouldn't be off base to assume that a lot of Europe is behind the plucky underdogs, who have, of course, shown themselves to be contenders this season.

Sure, Spurs stand to win their first Premier League trophy, and their first top-flight trophy since 1961, which would be an amazing achievement too. And Arsenal, if they win, will take home their first title in 12 years, since their "Invincible" season. Man City, meanwhile, would cement their place as the top club in Manchester over hated rivals United, while also giving their outgoing coach Manuel Pellegrini a last gift before Pep Guardiola (formerly of Barcelona and Bayern Munich) takes the reins.

But Leicester would be a win for (most of) the rest of England. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski note that titles in Europe typically go to one or two of the big cities. London and Manchester have shared almost all of the titles in the Premier League days (Blackburn is just 20 miles from Manchester), and that ever harder for smaller teams, from smaller cities, to break in. Leicester winning would spread the honors around, just as their success is (surely) being financed by an epic TV rights deal that seems to have raised all Premier League clubs, rather than just the top two or three.

So it's Leicester for me this year - surely they'll collapse again next season, and Pep Guardiola will launch Manchester City to a new period of dominance. But in the meantime, I'm reveling in a Premier League season where just about anything can happen, and has.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Some Men Just Want to See the World Burn: Why Donald Trump is the Joker

Just a quick one this week, as I prepare for the Super Bowl this afternoon, but I've been thinking about this all week. Specifically, how Donald Trump is not just A joker, but also THE Joker, ie Batman's archenemy.

So I was stretching my legs the other day at work with a quick walk around the neighborhood, and as so often happens, my mind started wandering to what I'd do and say if I were running for president. And given that nobody seems to know how to respond to Donald Trump's various incivilities, I was wondering how it would go down if some just told him to fuck off.

It occurred to me that, satisfying as that would be, it would mark his total victory in the way politics is played these days, because it would have meant whoever told him to fuck off would have fallen to his level. This isn't, btw, a question of standards and "fair play" and all that bullshit - telling Donald Trump to fuck off means that he's gotten under your skin, and effectively turned you into his own mirror image.

And, because Batman is never too far from my thoughts, it occurred to me that this is the same dynamic that Batman has with the Joker. The Joker's whole M.O. is to corrupt people, and Batman remains the biggest prize of all - if the Joker could get Batman to kill someone, even (or especially) the Joker himself, that shows that the Joker's been right all along. To put it another way, the Joker wants to show that society is an illusion, and people are all raging beasts underneath it all; while Batman represents the people who work in the shadows to make the rest of us safe, at least as Christopher Nolan's films would have it, he maintains a very strict line that he won't cross.

So how does this apply to Donald Trump? Well, without questioning his motives, it's fair to say that he's certainly appealing to the very worst tendencies in the American electorate at the moment. He's telling people the things they long to hear - that everybody's laughing at us (which they are, but not for the reason he thinks), that we're being swindled (again, not by the people he says are swindling us) and that he can fix it all.

Given that so many are still feeling the after-effects of the latest recession (btw, when do we get to start calling it a depression? It's been going on for the best part of a decade at this point...), and so many are terrified of what's happening in the rest of the world with ISIS and civil wars and drug wars, I think a lot of the simple answers he's peddling are comforting. And, not very many of the candidates on either side of the aisle are talking about how to make Americans feel better (despite being an ardent Democrat and leaning toward Bernie Sanders, I have to say that Sanders doesn't strike me as very strong on foreign policy).

But the problem is that Trump is encouraging people to give vent to their darkest impulses. The short term answer to international terrorism may seem to be "Close the borders", but we'll be safer if we take on ISIS and Al Qaeda (and, for that matter, Vladimir Putin) with a view to long-term solutions, and in an adult way.

In the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's second Batman film, the climax of the Joker's plan is to wire up two ships with explosives, one full of convicts and the other full of civilians, and essentially dare them not to blow the other up. The "law-abiding" citizens loudly insist on their right to take a vote, and driven by fear, vote to blow up the other ship. The convicts, on the other hand... don't.

The Joker's plan was to turn the people of the city against one another - and Donald Trump, whether or not he means to, is doing the same. But we're better than what he's telling us we are, and we deserve candidates who know that.