Pages

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Glad the Football's Back

In my ongoing quest to blog about something other than the car wreck merged with dumpster fire merged with shit show that is national politics in the US, I spent a good five minutes casting around for ideas about what to post today. Do I talk about Dunkirk, which I saw last night? Do I discuss my initial thoughts on the Defenders on Netflix?

Or I can go with the other old standby, which is football, and which is what I'm doing today. I'm about a week late to talk about the return of the Premier League, but given that the start of a season is a bit irrelevant and not always indicative of what's going to happen at the end, I feel like it's still worthwhile to chat about what I've seen so far.

Because I'm a statto, I've started putting together a spreadsheet to draw trends from the previous 25 seasons of the Premier League. I think I mentioned at around the time that Leicester City was driving toward its title that this would be the first time since the start of the EPL that the winner would come from outside the top three. What I didn't mention, but what is undoubtedly true, is that it happened again last season, when Chelsea won the league after placing tenth the previous year.

More interestingly, I saw an article this week that suggested how hard it's been for title-winning managers to keep their jobs. Claudio Ranieri got the sack at Leicester partway through last season, after presiding over a terrible run of form and some uninspired signings, while Jose Mourinho was out of a job midway through the season before after guiding Chelsea to a win.

Obviously people started measuring Antonio Conte's coffin after last week's loss to Burnley, but that talk should die down after today's result, where Chelsea beat Spurs. But if things go south for Chelsea this season, and he gets the sack, then we can point to it as a full-blown trend.

What makes a giant?

Another thought I had while watching the Spurs-Chelsea match at the gym this morning was about Bayern Munich, and why people call them "European giants". They're undoubtedly a great team, and ridiculously dominant in their home league, but I saw someone call them giants recently and had to dispute that.

Bayern occupies a similar role in the Bundesliga that Real Madrid and Barcelona have held in Spain, namely the onrushing juggernaut that just keeps winning championships. They are, in fact, so dominant that no other team has won the Bundesliga since 2012.

But success in Europe has been harder to come by, even when they were being managed by Pep Guardiola before he decamped for Manchester City. Sure, they won in 2013 against Borussia Dortmund, and lost against Chelsea in 2012, but haven't even gotten to the final since then.

I am aware of my standing as a Juventus fan, given that my team is notoriously bad at winning the Champions League, but I think it's worth delving deeper into why I think Bayern's maybe a smidgen overrated. One key thing is probably the players - undoubtedly a talented bunch, but I feel that it's more of a selling club than a buying club, and that the guys who've pitched up there are frequently misfits who didn't really fill their potential elsewhere.

I'm thinking of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, which may be a little harsh, given how many leagues they've won between them. But Ribéry is tainted by his association with France's off-pitch collapse in 2010, and has never really won major trophies away from Munich. Robben, meanwhile, has bounced around a number of clubs and won championships in every league that he played, but I have to admit that I'd completely forgotten he was at Chelsea back at the start of the Abramovich era.

Again, my assessment of misfits may be harsh, because Ribéry and Robben are undoubtedly talented, and there are also a number of great players, like Robert Lewandowski or Thomas Müller, who just go from strength to strength there. But on the other hand, James Rodríguez and Arturo Vidal pitching up in Munich when they've been deemed surplus to requirements at Real Madrid and Juventus proves my point, especially given how well their previous teams have done without them.

Maybe I'm being mean, and maybe it's easy to see everything as being a little skewed when Spanish teams have been so dominant in Europe since 2013. But it's probably fair to say that Bayern aren't really performing at the level they should be, given the talent they have - even if they'll probably romp to the title again this year.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

That Old Northern European Social Democracy Fetish Thing

Over the past few years I've noticed a new sub-genre of travel and history books popping up on UK bookshelves. These books are kind of an explainer of other northern European countries, typically written by British men who have met a partner and decided to elucidate on the quirks of their partner's home country. Their grasp of the local language isn't usually perfect, but they make up for it by their enthusiasm in detailing how much better the Germans/Dutch/Danes/whoever do the big stuff than the Brits.

Though I've been reading these books for quite a while - since at least 2012 - I've only thought to write about them now, having just finished the latest example last night. It's called Why the Dutch Are Different, and was written by Ben Coates, a former political whatever for the UK Conservative Party who met a Dutch girl on holiday and ended up moving to Rotterdam.

It's a fairly interesting book, not least because I'm currently learning Dutch on Duolingo. It also takes a fairly contrarian view about a couple of aspects of life in the Netherlands, in part because of Coates's background as a Tory and his experience as a middle-class, white immigrant, compared with the experience of those who've come from Turkey or Morocco. Which isn't to say that he's particularly right-wing (in the negative connotations of that term), just that it makes for an interesting contrast with the books written by, for example, Guardian journalists.

As I said, the authors of the books tend to revert to a type - white, middle-class, current or former journalists - but so, in a way, do the themes. Comparing and contrasting the different brands of Protestantism is common, as is noting the similarities in British and (for instance) German food. There's also the intense interest in these other countries' welfare states, and the question of whether they're sustainable.

I noticed these books popping up in the final couple of years I lived in London, spurred no doubt by the popularity of Danish and Swedish crime TV (which is touched on in Patrick Kingsley's How to Be Danish). I wouldn't say loads of my group of friends was particularly into northern Europe - one friend admitted to internalizing his grandfather's view of the Germans - but there was definitely something in the air that suggested the Brits were getting more interested in how the Dutch, the Danes or the Germans organized their societies.

The trend seems to have started with Germany, as a number of authors sought to present a rehabilitated view of the country. There was Ben Donald's Springtime for Germany, which I didn't read but that seems to acknowledge that it's a little odd to be persuading people to visit or learn more about Germany. The one I did read was Simon Winder's Germania, which is more of a history than a travel essay or memoir, but does the admirable job of talking about German history before World War II. There were a number of others, each touching on different aspects of German history, but all aimed at reintroducing Germany to the Brits (a phrase that caused a friend of mine to yell at me for how down I always was on British people).

Given some other blog posts I've written about Germany and the dearth of German-speakers in the Anglo-American world, I was intrigued by this trend, and read more than a few examples. My favorite is probably Philip Oltermann's Keeping Up With the Germans, which is actually kind of a reversal of the formula, as it's by a German who moved to the UK as a kid.

Others started appearing around that time, such as Swiss Watching, by Diccon Bewes, and the aforementioned How to Be Danish. I suspect that geopolitics had something to do with this efflorescence, in a number of ways. For one thing, the financial crisis that started in 2007-08 may have made the southern European countries seem more chaotic; alternately the free movement among EU countries was starting to throw up more of these couples, causing more books to be written about what the authors were finding when they ventured north or east, rather than south.

It's also not hard to see the hand of the market, as Provence and Tuscany are pretty played out as destinations for authors to "find themselves". On a personal note, I've always found those types of books - Bella Tuscany, A Year in Provence, Driving over Lemons, etc - to be faintly patronizing, as an Italian. As if the appeal were precisely that the author's new neighbors were "fierce" and "full of life" and there explicitly to teach the author to appreciate the simpler things in life, similar to the "Magical Negro" trope in fantasy fiction.

I also suspect that the chaos at home influenced the popularity of these books about northern Europe. In addition to austerity caused by the financial crash, Britain saw a lot more polarization in its politics, along with a head-long rush to privatize everything. In those circumstances, it makes sense that authors (particularly Guardian journalists) would want to look abroad and ask how other countries were still able to offer a social safety net. More baldly, people dissatisfied with what's happening at home are more likely to look at places that they perceive to be stable and functional.

Predictably, there are excesses caused by this trend, and the inevitable backlash. Every time I'm back in London I marvel at the popularity of Tiger, a sort of Danish version of Woolworth's filled with cutesy but well-designed crap. And Michael Booth, who's written a number of food travelogues and lives in Denmark with a Danish wife, also took it upon himself to deflate this love for all things Nordic in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People. I haven't read it, so can't comment, but the back-cover copy always seems more dyspeptic than affectionate, and so I keep not buying it when I'm in the UK.

Overall, whether you think the Nordics or Germany are overrated, I have to appreciate this interest in that part of Europe. For one thing, it's nice to see a color scheme other than black and red on the German shelves in the history section of bookstores - without wanting to excuse or downplay the Second World War, I feel it's worth understanding German history both before and after the Nazi era.

The other admirable thing about these books is that they are genuinely aimed at providing some context. Britain has long held this opinion that everything from the continent is suspect, an idea that was reinforced by WWII. Now, however, with inequality ramping up people seem genuinely interested in seeing what they can learn from neighboring countries. Paradoxically, as Brexit gains speed, I suspect we'll see more of this comparison (notably, each of the books I've read was written before the Brexit vote last year), even as it becomes more difficult for British people and continentals to mingle.

What I'd like to see is more American authors doing the same. Where the Brits are finally starting to get over calling Germans Fritz or Jerry and not mentioning the war (at least some of them), Americans still don't have a sense of how interesting Germany or the rest of northern Europe can be. In fairness, most Americans don't have any sense of the value of anything beyond their borders - and I'm including a lot of the more "cosmopolitan" Americans here - but with the amount of crap that isn't functioning in this country, I think it'd be nice for us to learn how societies that are actually safe and egalitarian have managed the feat.

I suspect I may be waiting for a long time, but as an optimist I live in eternal hope.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Reconnecting with the Palo Alto Obon Festival

Spent part of today at the local Buddhist temple, for day 2 of their Obon Festival. I remembered it from when I was a kid, when we'd go as a family (given that for about ten years we lived within walking distance of the place), and it struck me as I headed over this afternoon that those previous visits must have informed my appreciation for Japanese food.

I have hazy memories of beef and chicken teriyaki or yakitori, and carnival games, music, dancing, etc. All of those things were on show today, as well as a recital of traditional koto music and a demonstration of judo by the judo club that practices at the temple every week.

What's funny to me is that this is the first time I've gone in the nearly four years I've been back. My longer running routes usually take me past the temple, so it's not like it isn't on my radar, but I've just never gone looking for it. I probably wouldn't have gone this year, either, if I hadn't seen the Mountain View Obon Festival, which took place a couple of weekends ago - that's what made me look up when the one for Palo Alto was taking place.

In terms of the food, it was pretty good, though leaning toward ball-park prices to build a full meal. I had some cold soba noodles (which I haven't had before) and a single strip of teriyaki beef short rib, which was nice but costly for what they gave you, and had to supplement with a teriyaki chicken thigh and leg, which was a bit more like it.

What was notably not ball-park priced was the small bottle of sake that I picked up for a fiver. I'd expected to be bilked outrageously, but I'm willing to make certain sacrifices in my pursuit of the imagined ideal of Japanese living. So imagine my surprise when the bottle they gave me turned out to contain way more than I could safely drink before driving home. I had a single thimble-full - enough to let me know I'd had some sake - and transported the rest home, where it's now safely in my fridge.

As far as the entertainment, beyond what I listed above I also caught one of the three taiko recitals they were hosting today, played by the temple's youth group. Of the three it was probably my favorite, because I really like the sonics of taiko drumming, and because it was impressive to watch the drummers' athleticism and coordination. I remember seeing Michael Palin hanging around with some taiko drummers in Japan for his Full Circle series, which entailed ten-mile runs in the morning and all kinds of privation. The group here in Palo Alto probably doesn't get to those levels, but it does strike me as a good way to get in shape, so I might check that out...

The other notable thing was the community. There were a lot of multi-generational families, with grandparents, parents and grandkids (which makes sense, as it's a festival to honor ancestors), and they seemed heavily Japanese-American, which also makes sense as the festival is specifically Japanese, though China and Korea have their own variants. What struck me was that these were clearly yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese, so people with deeper roots in the area than I've got. The woman who led the koto recital, in fact, called herself yonsei and said her son was gosei, or fifth-generation, which is nice as it shows that the community is still going strong.

In the end it was fun to get out to a local event, sample some delicious food and enjoy some Japanese culture leavened with local influences. One of my favorite things about the US in general, and California in particular, is that at its best the melting pot of cultures and languages leads to new and unique expressions of much older traditions around the world. And it's nice to be able to enjoy an aspect of Japanese culture that's open to non-Japanese and non-Buddhists.

I just have to remember to catch the festival again next year...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Don't Just Write

I've been thinking about feel-good mantras a lot recently, and this was catalyzed a bit by a recent Tim Ferriss podcast where he talked to a bunch of previous guests about when it's time to quit something. A lot of the advice - or even all of it - was good, and very little of it had anything to do with writing fiction, but it got me thinking about the advice that beginning/aspiring writers get a lot.

The main one is, "Just write!" I think it should be obvious from my use of an exclamation point what I think of this advice. I've gotten it myself, many times, and the hell of it is that it's good advice. But it's not enough - necessary but not sufficient.

Thing is, writing's the easy part. The hard part is submitting it places, and getting it into shape to submit to magazines, contests, and literary agents. The one I prefer is Robert Heinlein's "Read a lot, write a lot, and send away what you write." But even that one kind of obscures the amount of work needed to get something into shape.

The platonic ideal is to write a story, send it off, and get started on the very next one. What I'm finding hard these days is balancing creating new stuff with editing the old stuff that I've "finished". I've got a screenplay I spent last year writing, and have spent some time since tinkering with it, getting it back in shape, etc. I have a short novel I wrote in 2015, which I've also been tinkering with since I wrote it. Just got back some beta reader comments on it that indicate how much more work I have to do on it.

But what do I prioritize? Writing new stuff (like this short story idea I've had) or fixing up the old stuff? The other complicating factor is that short stories are easier to submit than novels or screenplays, but less lucrative.

As an aside: yes, I'd like to make money at writing; doesn't mean I don't take it seriously - on the contrary, wanting to make money at it seems like even more reason to learn to do it well.

Obviously I need to do all of it. But to come back to my original thesis here, I can't only do the writing - to be successful at it (however you define success) you have to do the editing, the research and the submitting.

It's a good way to learn to deal with rejection!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Finally Finished Breaking Bad

The title says it all - after first checking it out in 2012, I've seen the resolution of Walter White's quest, and the final fate of his family, his partners and his enemies. I won't be posting a spoiler warning here, because the show ended in 2013, so proceed at your own risk as I deliver myself of my final thoughts.

It's a show that seems to inspire a lot of fervent love in its fans, but I have to admit that it didn't do the same in me. This is probably why I've spent so much time thinking about it, and why I'm writing about it now. The following will take that into account, as a kind of riposte to the likes of Chris Hardwick or my friend Anthony, who have championed it heavily for years.

In a lot of ways, the show really came alive for me in these final 16 episodes. It started to get very good at the end of season 3, when Walt ran over and shot those two drug dealers who were about to kill Jesse, and who worked for his employer, Gus Fring. It got good again toward the end of the fourth season as well, when Walt started maneuvering around Fring, and finally killed him with a cunningly laid trap.

But whereas every previous season walked everything back sooner or later, the fifth season was finally able to move things forward and keep escalating until Walt killed Mike, got Hank and Gomie murdered, and alienated his entire family, right down to Walter Junior. It was clearly the story Vince Gilligan was building toward, and as much as Gilligan and his fellow writers may have enjoyed building up to it, putting everything into place for the showdown and the scene where Walter meets his end, it feels like something that could have worked as a movie, or a series of movies, rather than 50-plus hour-long episodes.

Over the seasons I've complained about Walter himself, because he's a frequently aggravating character. I listened again to Bryan Cranston talking about his approach to playing Walt, and I have to say at the end that maybe we (or I) needed more hand-holding, more explanation of why Walt made the decisions he did. You could argue, rightly, that the first image of this dorky chemistry teacher brandishing a gun in his tighty-whiteys in the desert is a kind of red herring to the sinister figure of Heisenberg that he became by the end.

My problem, however, is that the changes rarely felt earned - he refuses the financial assistance from his former friends at Gray Matter in Season 1 or 2, but we don't get an inkling why until Season 5. He lets Jesse's girlfriend choke on her own vomit, runs over two people and poisons a kid, to say nothing of all the other people he murders. Was he always this much of a sociopath, or did each misdeed lead to the next? Neither explanation feels adequate, as we don't see enough to really decide which is true.

Similar to Iron Fist, over on Netflix, the main character wasn't as much fun to watch as a lot of the folks around him, especially once Hank realized that Walter had been leading him astray for the entire run of the show previously.

For another comparison, though, I have to say that Breaking Bad didn't nail the family stuff as well as the Sopranos did. That was another show I enjoyed but didn't love, though David Chase made his thematic concerns plainer, or at least was better at communicating them. Tony Soprano's relationship with his immediate family was at least as compelling as the crime stuff, if not more so, but I couldn't say the same about Walt, and this is probably because of Walt's lack of definition as a character. David Chase makes very clear that Tony's evil and irredeemable - you see how he gets this way, and you see the toll it takes on him, but there's no effort by the writers to portray Tony as anything else.

I couldn't say the same about Walt, because so much of the story is about glorifying outlaws and leaving behind a legacy. Not that there's anything wrong with telling that story, but I feel that Breaking Bad tried to have it both ways, and in doing so failed to tell either type of story in a satisfactory way.

On the other hand, what fun it was to see Walt come back to Albuquerque and take his revenge on the meth dealers and his other betrayers. Uncle Jack and his Neo-Nazi Friday Night Lights alums (we have both Landry and Herc in his gang) were a great final set of villains. We first met them when Walt orchestrated his prison killing spree, but they survived to eliminate the other meth dealer, Declan, and join forces with Lydia at the international supplier. They became the uncontrolled reagent for Walt, leading to the death of his brother-in-law, and so it was pretty cathartic to see Walt use his technical skills one last time in the service of wiping them out.

So what's the legacy of Breaking Bad for me? Well, I can't put it anywhere near my top five shows ever (which currently stand, in order, as 1.) the Wire, 2.) the West Wing, 3.) Justified, with spots 4 and 5 unassigned). But at the same time, if I'd hated it I wouldn't have stuck with it until the bitter end - and there were good, or even great, moments throughout. The fifth season was the best, as far as I'm concerned, and it's made me want to catch up with the spin-off, Better Call Saul.

And I can't deny that there's a sense of loss at finally seeing how it ended, given that I spent about as much time watching the show as it was on the air. It may not have been the best show, but I'm glad I continued on to see the end of Walter's quest, and another appearance of Cradoc Marine Bank from the X-Files. I'm also glad to see that Jesse got out alive, and that Badger and Skinny Pete survived to continue their self-destruction.

As Jesse would say, "Yeah, bitch."

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Guest Post: What the Pursuit of Happiness Does and Doesn't Mean

Trying something new today - my friend Jeremy posted the below on Facebook, and has allowed me to post it here, since it sums up pretty closely something I wanted to post to mark Independence Day in the US. Enjoy:

American culture has a character problem. The evidence is abundant. Look at our child president. Look at the sad resentments that have made the "troll" into an established American archetype. Look at how large parts of the population moan about the imaginary restraints of "political correctness."
The funny thing is that America's lack of character is bound tightly to the otherwise enlightened idea that each human is inherently valuable.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's great! Radical, even, given how we treat each other.

It's also obvious that we've never come close to putting these supposedly self-evident truths into practice. Some say America has always been a forward-looking concern, that that unequivocal line from the declaration is a beacon on a distant shore, one that we aim for when we take a break from beating civil rights marchers and injecting people with expired execution drugs. We fix on that beacon and ignore the cognitive dissonance the threatens to trouble us whenever a right-winger invokes Martin Luther King, Jr.

But I think that founding idea also works on us at a more basic, psychological level. It gives us a powerful cognitive tool we can use to assert ourselves, to proclaim our worth in the face of the forces of anti-humanism.

Unfortunately, this tool can also be put to dark uses. For some, the American self isn't just sovereign. It's imperial. It opposes civilization and cultivation. It favors the zero-sum contest and precludes honorable restraint and moral obligation.

I'm not saying the American character needs more submissiveness. Nor do I use obligation in the Confucian sense. But I fear so much of our culture insists that we're just fine as we are. The raw materials implied by our self-evident animating idea are enough and in no need of refinement. Even our children's entertainment emphasizes "being yourself" with no mention of "becoming yourself."
But the Declaration of Independence wasn't a declaration against self-improvement. The idea was never that we should be born free and then stay dumb, that our inherent value as people absolved us from all further effort. The "pursuit of happiness" may sound like the end of obligation, but it's an active idea, an invitation to strive.

To be clear, I'm not talking about the meritocracy or the self-improvement of internships, resumes and the self-help section.

The pursuit of happiness is America's jihad. It is a call for us to struggle against base instincts and prejudices. It is the effort to make each us a vessel of civilization and refinement. We must have experiences and study the arts and expand our conceptions. We have to question ourselves and resist the fake comfort of confirmation bias. We must live for each other and build each other up even as we work to improve ourselves.

Honor isn't a restraint, and the declaration didn't kill it. Each of us may have our ideas about what constitutes happiness, but how can anyone be happy when everyone acts as if their happiness matters more than everyone else's?

Resentment is an individual flaw, but it's also writ large in the contemporary American character. It is the current president's primary motivation. It was the force behind the political movement that put him in power. Resentment keeps us from thinking clearly about our real problems. It is against honor and it weakens us.

So, in that spirit, I recommend that Trump's America read George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company in Conversation. He wrote it when he was a teenager. Not all of the rules are worth following. It has a bit too much deference to social betters for my taste. But patriots might like it.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

London vs New York

Just got back this week from a whirlwind-ish tour of Europe, in which I hit London, Turin and Rome. Mainly I was seeing family (as my sisters live in London, my dad's in Turin and my mom spends her summers in Rome), but also working in London and doing touristy stuff in Italy.

Being in London reminded me of something I've been considering lately, namely that London, along with New York, is that rare city that is at once representative of its wider country but also completely unlike the rest of the country.
Financial Times

To explain: both London and New York are the centers of finance, culture and business for their respective countries, which means that foreigners associate the UK and the US, respectively, with them. For a lot of non-Americans, New York is considered the most obvious expression of America, and for non-Brits London holds the same position as the archetypal British city.

But at the same time, both countries are also just diverse enough that nowhere else is like New York or London, to the point that residents of some areas define themselves in opposition to these cities. Examples are how Southerners or West Coast people (or even folks from the Midwest) hold up New York as The Enemy, an example not to be followed at any cost for its poverty and decadence. With London, the cultural resistance comes from the North, where anyone south of the Midlands is regarded as a "southern nancy", and the Home Counties, which define themselves in suburban opposition to the metropolis. For some Americans, New York is pretty un-American, while for some Brits London isn't very British at all.

I find it an interesting idea, because I have trouble thinking of another city that occupies the same place for both foreigners and locals. The closest is Paris, which occupies that same space in foreigners' minds of being so comprehensively French, even if the rest of the country can be quite different. Yet I'd have trouble imagining that folks from other regions in France consider themselves to be more truly French than Parisians.

Even countries like Italy and Spain don't seem to have this dynamic. In both of those cases, you could argue that the capital (Rome and Madrid) has a key rival in another part of the country (Milan and Barcelona), and that both are equally representative of their respective countries' essences. As different as the various regions of Italy are, I don't think I've ever encountered any Italian who would argue that Rome isn't very Italian. By contrast, Spain is so diverse and linguistically fragmented that many in Barcelona, or Catalonia more generally, define themselves and their city as less Spanish.

Understanding of a place also plays into this. India is quite a diverse country, along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines, to the point that it's hard (for me at least) to consider one city, say New Delhi, as more quintessentially Indian than anywhere else. Same with China - I don't know how people in Sichuan or other regions sees Beijing, but given that it's where the seat of power has resided for centuries, I would assume it's considered very Chinese even by locals.

But the overall dynamic of London and New York remains really interesting to me, in part because it's a truism that both are more similar to each other than to other big cities in their regions. This isn't to say that New York is a particularly European city (it really isn't), or that London is at all American, but it is true that they have a lot of similarities that make comparisons between them meaningful. It feels nonsensical to compare Chicago or LA with London, just as it feels weird to compare Rome or Amsterdam with New York (to say nothing of Edinburgh or Birmingham).

But comparing London with New York does make more sense - and from that comes their status of being both representative of, and unique within, their home countries.