Sunday, 30 August 2015

30 Years of Weird Al

Last night I caught Weird Al Yankovic's show at the Masonic Theater in San Francisco. I won't pretend it satisfied a long-standing goal of mine to see him play live, but on the other hand I'm glad I finally did - I've been listening to him off and on since I was about seven years old, with a big spike in high school, when he released Alapalooza.

To some extent I thought he'd always remain a relic of the 80s - between the silliness of that music and the rise of music videos, it seemed like the perfect time for him. I always thought he flew under the radar for much of the 90s and early 00s, but then last year he emerged with his first #1 album, Mandatory Fun, so what do I know?

My theory about him is that the kids who were listening to him in the 80s are all grown up now and in a position to buy his music for themselves and for their own kids, whereas before they had to beg their parents for the money (or, like me, had to record it onto cassette tapes). As if to prove my point, the crowd last night was all-ages - there were middle-aged people and small-ish children, and a hard-core of people in their 20s sitting down in the front row who were rocking out to the whole show.

One of the middle-aged folks was my dad, who's appreciated Weird Al about as long as I have. Oddly, we determined that this was probably his first rock concert since he took me and a friend to see REM at Shoreline Amphitheater in 1995 (my first show ever). Even though he didn't recognize a lot of the songs or the source material, I think my dad enjoyed the show - he'd have just appreciated a full rendition of Like a Surgeon, Al's parody of Like a Virgin by Madonna. What we got was a section of the song, done in a medley of other songs, in the style of a barbershop quartet.

That's Al's genius, of course - beyond the way he can change a single word or even letter to turn one song into something strange and hilarious, he also has this gift for setting one type of music to another. Admittedly this is usually polka, but he proved that he can do it more widely by singing a section of Eat It (from Michael Jackson's Beat It) to the tune of Eric Clapton's acoustic rendition of Layla from the Unplugged album. I guess Weird Al's quite rewarding to listen to if you're a music nerd, like me.

Of course, he also treated us to one of his polka medleys, of which my favorite part had to be his section of Sledgehammer by Miley Cyrus, during which he played the video on a giant screen above the stage - just imagine the video with her singing the lyrics, but his voice coming out. And you can see how he's influenced other artists - my favorite example is Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman's band, Hard'n'Phirm, doing a bluegrass-style medley of Radiohead songs:

Anyway, last night's show was the only one he was doing in SF, so I'll just have to wait for the next tour to see him again. But someday I hope to have kids to take to see him - it'll be nice to introduce the now-bygone world of the 80s and 90s to them through him...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Proud to be an SJW

I saw this piece in Wired this morning while looking through Twitter, and against my better judgement, have decided to share a couple of cents on the whole Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy, now that it's over (at least as far as the 2015 Hugos are concerned).

Amy Wallace's article does a good job of showing both sides of the argument, and she did well to get comments from Brad Torgerson and Larry Correia, among others. In particular, while noting that the two slates had right-leaning (or hard-right) ideological underpinnings, she was also right to point out the feelings of some fans, overheard on the con floor at Sasquan or cited as sources, that some of the other nominated fiction can be self-indulgent or redolent of academia, rather than of what people want to read.

On the other hand, Sad Puppies kind of lose their credibility when they go after stuff like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice.

Apparently Ancillary Justice winning the Hugo last year was a bleak moment for some folks, because Leckie was writing about a society that doesn't care about gender, and uses the personal pronoun "she" to refer to everybody, whether they're biologically male or female.

I suppose this could be a bit disconcerting to some, but I remember it fondly, because it's something different (at least in my reading experience, which admittedly skews white and male), and because I appreciated it as something that would be very difficult to translate to another medium. Regardless of your politics, surely you can appreciate that a book's been written to be a book, rather than with an eye toward being adapted into a movie or TV show.

(Which is also not a dig at books that are being adapted, as I'm quite excited for SyFy's version of the Expanse books by James SA Corey)

That Ancillary Justice is troubling to some fans also seems odd because it really is a well-written novel, and an excellent example of classic-style science fiction. It strikes me as a great book to show people who think SF is dumb, or who don't know much about it, or who simply want to read something different. Frankly, the fact that I read it is odd enough - I stopped reading primarily science fiction soon after college, and switched to fantasy, in part because a lot of it was getting boring, repetitive and derivative (I hated Altered Carbon and the Reality Dysfunction, for example). When a book comes with a lot of critical buzz I'll check it out, and Ancillary Justice didn't disappoint.

(As another aside, I will admit that the sequel, Ancillary Sword, didn't grab me quite as much as Justice - it was still good, but the best analogy I can think of is Justice was like that really satisfying roar you get when you start a sports car engine, and Sword is the engine settling into more of a continuous growl. #litcritFTW).

The other point that's worth making is that if science fiction is a literature of ideas, as some fans like to insist, then you need to be open to ideas. And ideas don't always come from white dudes writing about super smart engineers in space, to use phrasing from the Wired article. In fact, when you get too many white dudes writing about engineers in space, then people outside the genre think that's the only thing that it's about, and you don't get new readers, because not everyone wants to read that.

And finally - can we stop using the term "social justice warrior" as a pejorative? How can you be against social justice, and against people getting a fair shake? One of the Sad Puppies guys, Torgerson or Correia, mentioned the stamping out of blue-collar voices from SF, which I actually agree is a bad thing. But let's not use that as an excuse to raise the barriers against other historically under-represented groups - more freedom for one group should translate to more freedom for all groups, and infighting only serves people who want to control a thing (whether it's SF voices, or politics, or economics) for their own selfish purposes.

And we don't want that, do we? We want to be able to read stuff that we like. Let's go back to that, shall we?

Monday, 17 August 2015

Save Bookbuyers in Mountain View: the Unique Pleasures of Used Bookstores

Although the once-vibrant bookstore scene around Palo Alto has been pretty comprehensively obliterated by Amazon and the collapse of Borders, I'm lucky enough to have not one but two bookshops on the street where I work, both right next to one another. The first is the Mountain View branch of Books Inc, which bills itself as the West's oldest independent bookshop, and the other is Bookbuyers, a used bookstore that's currently locked in a fight for its life.

I won't go into the litany of problems it's had, but the main issue is that it doesn't have enough cash coming in. This is a shame because it happens to be extraordinarily well-stocked, and full of books that would be pretty much impossible to find elsewhere.

Case in point: last week they were holding their monthly comic book sale, where single issues were going for 25 cents (or $1 if you bought them with trade-in credit). I had an idle look while in there on my lunch break, and found all four issues of the Elongated Man mini-series from 1992.

Maybe I'm the only person in the world who'd say this, but that was a hell of a find. It was written by Gerard Jones, who wrote the Justice League Europe book during the "Bwah-ha-ha" years when Keith Giffen was masterminding the Justice League books, and was drawn by Mike Parobeck, whose best known work was possibly on the Batman Adventures tie-in comic to the Animated Series, and who died way too early, at the age of 30, of complications from diabetes.

Those Justice League America and Justice League Europe books were what hooked me on DC Comics, and finding the Elongated Man series was like unearthing a long-lost B-side. It's mostly quite silly, juvenile, and the Italian dialogue, where it appears, is abysmal (though still better than I expected), but three issues in and I'm charmed. Ralph and Sue Dibny are characters I first encountered in JLE, and it's nice seeing them take center-stage, especially in light of what happened to them in Identity Crisis.

Also, I remember even now how bad I felt when I heard Parobeck had died, so that it's almost miraculous to find another example of his body of work (I first encountered his cartoony but fluid style in the ten-issue Justice Society of America series, and in El Diablo, which was his first big assignment).

As I noted to a friend the day after I found them, those books are probably worth nothing at all now, but to me they're priceless. DC's gotten quite good about reprinting stories in trade paperback form, but I can't imagine there's much demand for Elongated Man 1-4, so I'm happy I had a look in Bookbuyers's comic boxes when I did.

And that's why it'd be a shame if Bookbuyers went under: like any good used bookstore, it's messy and labyrinthine and impossible to find anything without dedicating time to searching. But if you put in the time, you're likely to find something that's fallen between the cracks of the publishing industry - something worthwhile, but that failed to gain enough of an audience to stay in print. And in addition, Bookbuyers is putting on events to make it even more of a place for communities to form - book clubs and author talks and more. One author talk I went to was by a local writer who set part of her debut novel in Bookbuyers itself, so it's even becoming responsible for literature.

You might argue that its business model shows that it can't hack it in a world of Amazon and e-books more generally. But, much as I love that I can buy a book on my phone while sitting in the Rose Garden in Portland, and start reading it straight away, there's also something to be said for the pleasure of finding something unexpected and physical.

Pretty much all of the new books and comics are coming out on Kindle, and classics from Mark Twain or Jane Austen are available for free, but like everything nowadays, there's a huge middle-section that's being lost, as it's too difficult to digitize and too new to be public domain. I'd hate to see a gap that size in our cultural patrimony, just because we're too addled by technology to appreciate the tactile pleasures of a book or comic.

So go to Bookbuyers! Or to your local used bookstore, wherever you might find it. Pick something up, riffle through it (gently), and try and imagine how hard it would be to find in Barnes and Noble. And then buy it and take it home.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

In Praise of Fantasy Football

Once again we're at the start of a new English Premier League season, bringing with it all the things you'd expect: transfer rumors, managerial sackings and the odd instance of fan misbehavior (typically in the form of racism or violence). But enough nostalgia for my days in London, which in any case I covered at around this time last year - no, today I want to talk about the humble fantasy league.

While I went around 9 years between the one I participated in at my first job (the venerable Blundersliga) and the one I'm on now, run through the Premier League's own site, it's actually hard to remember what life was like without it. OK, that might be overstating things, since I also just went without for the past couple of months... but there was definitely something missing from my life.

But it's back now, and so is my (admittedly limited) interest in the doings of mid- or low-tier Premiership sides like Everton or Norwich. During those 9 long years where I didn't join a league, the start of the season was always a trial, because I had no real interest in any of the teams. I generally don't commit to supporting any Premiership sides, because of the inevitable conflict when they meet an Italian team I support, so trying to muster some interest in the likelihood of Spurs winning the league was always a bit beyond me.

But add in the prospect of earning points and competing with friends, family members and colleagues who work 5,000 miles away and whom you've never met, and suddenly I am quite interested, thank you, in how many goals Harry Kane is likely to score this season. Chris Hardwick once summed up the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons as a hybrid of fantasy and math ("squeeeee"), and this is just as valid in fantasy sports, which is pretty much just Dungeons & Dragons for jocks.

In fact, from what I can tell soccer is actually a pretty dumbed-down version - listening to my friends who play fantasy football (NFL) or baseball tells me that they immerse themselves in a lot more stats than I do. I'm mainly interested in how many goals, assists and clean sheets my team will get, along with the not insignificant question of whether they're playing at all - American sports have gone through the looking glass and introduced something where you can have athletes from all sports on one team.

Crazy, huh? I wanted to add some impact to that statement by listing athletes from each major sports league in America, but after Lebron James I couldn't think of anybody. Sorry. But I'm sure if you can be bothered to think about three enormously stat-driven sports at once, it must be super-fun.

As I said, though, I prefer the simpler pleasures of obsessively watching Sky Sports News for news of who's registered a clean sheet or not, only to return to the office on Monday to discover that my entire starting lineup was out through injury, international duty or simply being too shit to start. That and, of course, coming up with witty comments on what my team did during the week.

This was why the Blundersliga was my favorite experience. It was set up by my friend and coworker Mike, who laboriously went through the scores in the Times on Monday and exhorted the rest of us managers to say something clever about our performance. I filled in for him once when he was on holiday, and I can report that it was a pretty serious job, checking each player's score and then doling out the points.

Of course, the reason I'm so nostalgic for the post-match reports is that I found early on that you could do all kinds of wonderful things with them. I introduced, for instance, a brash American club chairman named Baz Vegas, who was guilty of all kinds of misdemeanors week to week; I also lifted wholesale from the Mike Myers opus, "Austin Powers in: Goldmember" to make a lot of silly Dutch jokes involving then-Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

But I think I can say that my crowning achievement was when I stole the Blundersliga trophy (yes, Mike had a trophy made) off my flatmate Ian's desk, and hid it for several months in various spots around the office, using the post-match reports to give him clues, which, sadly, he never really bothered to follow up. In the event, the trophy spent quite a long time at the back of a filing cabinet, in the Germany section.

So yes, I miss that. There's not really an element of trash-talking in my current leagues (I'm participating in three, all via my one team, the storied Westcliff Athletic, on the Premier League site). Or if there is, I'm not privy - but I do get to talk tactics with my sister, who's revealed herself to be even more obsessed with it than I.

However, if you think it's nothing more than a way to be silly and squabble with others, I can say that my experience last year gave me quite the crash course in economics. The main thing was value - how many points does a player costing X score, and is X worth the extra points when he's compared to a player who scores fewer points, but costs X-3? And how much money should I tie up in a player I'm signing exclusively to sit on my bench?

I'm not sure how applicable this is in anything other than fantasy sports, but I need some way to justify all the time I've spent on it, so please indulge me.

The other question is how to set up your team so that it's not 100% copied from someone else - after all, if all of your starting XI are in your nearest rival's team, you can neither catch up to them nor widen the gap between you.

In any case, I have to go see how many points I received from today's matches, and prepare for tomorrow's game. If you need me, I'll be poring over the form sheets of players from the lowest depths of the Premier League - think titans like Watford and Bournemouth.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Hyperion and the Start of Your Story: Why Worldbuilding Shouldn't Be an Infodump

Since moving back to the US more than a year ago, I've been doing a lot of re-reading. Last year it was my old Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux travel books, and this year it's Dan Simmon's Hyperion. Hyperion, and the rest of the books in the series (The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion) were some of my favorite books in late high school and early college, and they've been calling to me from their shelves since I got back here.

The book that started it all

(Quick note before we continue: major spoilers to come. The books have been out since 1989, so you really ought to have read them by now, but just warning you)

Another reason I wanted to revisit Hyperion was because of the thematic links with Mass Effect. Both feature organic beings in conflict with artificial intelligences, and a cataclysm where the network linking the galaxy together falls. So I was curious to see just how much more of Mass Effect I could find in Hyperion, or if those were the only similarities.

And finally, there's the start of the novel:

"The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below. A thunderstorm was brewing to the north. Bruise-black clouds silhouetted a forest of giant gymnosperms while stratocumulus towered nine kilometers high in a violent sky. Lightning rippled along the horizon. Closer to the ship, occasional vague, green reptilian shapes would blunder into the interdiction field, cry out, and then crash away through indigo mists. The Consul concentrated on a difficult section of the Prelude and ignored the approach of storm and nightfall.

The fatline receiver chimed."

A few years ago I discovered Dan Simmons's occasional columns on the craft, called Writing Well. While they sometimes held hints of the political direction his fiction was taking (the right-wing variety of shrill), and while they also sometimes left me even less hopeful about my chances of succeeding than before, they also held some important nuggets of wisdom, which I've tried to follow ever since.

One is the admonition to read at least six top-flight authors per year; this is to see how the very best writers structure their stories and their prose, and (as an avid SFF reader) a chance to read more widely in other genres. While I don't do a close reading of these six, exposure to them is definitely beneficial (even if it highlights the difference in quality of prose of a lot of what I normally read).

Another thing that stuck with me was the beginning. Simmons once took the beginning of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, and contrasted it with Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (this also directly led to me reading both novels). While the two couldn't be more different in tone and subject matter and structure, they both succeed in introducing the world that the reader is stepping into - not by explaining backstory or info-dumping the name and provenance of every character, but by showing us the themes and the rules by which these novels operate.

Or, as Simmons himself put it, world-building.

So, having read that column, I subsequently went to my local bookstore to see if he'd put the same thing into practice in his own book (this was in London, and my copy of Hyperion still lived here in Palo Alto). The passage above is what I found, and sure enough, it does exactly that.

Look at the scene: a man's playing Rachmaninoff on the piano. But he's on a spaceship, on an alien planet. Inside it's quiet enough for him to hear the "chime" of an incoming call, but outside the ship is chaos, with animals crashing into the shields and a violent storm brewing.

Throughout the rest of the book, as we hear the other characters' stories, we learn more about the wider universe: how humanity is scattered throughout the World Web on a variety of different worlds, but the society's position is precarious due to the threat of the "barbarian" Ousters; how the destruction of Earth has created a society obsessed with looking back and re-creating various facets of the society that came from Earth.

One of the pilgrims is a Catholic priest, and Simmons is at pains to stress that the Church continues, but is in its death throes, at least until the discovery (later) of the cruciform parasites leads to its resurgence and an even more stunted, backward-looking society. The poetry of John Keats is also particularly prevalent in the book, existing alongside ever-more advanced weaponry.

The opening scene has all of those themes, and presents them elegantly: old vs new, order vs chaos, stasis vs change. You may quibble that the storm is a little overdone thematically (who wants to bet that Simmons, as a placeholder, initially wrote "It was a dark and stormy night" here?), but it does represent the impending invasion that the Consul learns about in the following paragraphs.

It's been so long since I first read Hyperion that I can't recall how the passage first struck me; all I do remember is the (more recent) feeling of awe that, with my knowledge of the rest of the story, everything was already there in the first paragraph. But it clearly worked to hook me and reel me in to the rest of the story (for what it's worth, the first book in the series I ever picked up was The Fall of Hyperion, not knowing it was a sequel, and found that it made no sense - but I appreciated the second book much more having read this one).

As I said above, this is what Simmons means by world-building. Instead of spending too much time lovingly describing your secondary world's magic system or FTL drives, he advocates building the world through the themes you're exploring - which is, of course, the important thing. After all, nobody can describe how magic works in Lord of the Rings, or how hyperdrive works in Star Wars... they just knows it works.

It may seem like a tall order to get the themes in with the very first paragraph, but it's also helpful to remember Stephen King's suggestion: get the first draft done, and then start worrying about the themes in the subsequent drafts.

All stuff I'm hoping to put in practice for my own book.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Real Madrid and Barcelona really are the best, aren't they?

I recently finished Fear and Loathing in La Liga, an account of the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry written by Sid Lowe, who covers Spanish football for, among others, the Guardian. I first became acquainted with Sid's work through the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, and then his weekly column rounding up the latest doings in Spanish football.

I'm not the biggest fan of Spanish football, of course. I've spoken before of how boring I find it that La Liga is effectively dominated by only two teams, and always has been. Looking through the lists of championships for other countries, you do typically see one team that's dominated (rather than two), but you also see that other teams have had periods of dominance, sometimes for large parts of decades - for example, the Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s. In other leagues teams rise, shine for a while, then fall.

Not so in Spain. In recent memory, the longest the league's gone without either Real or Barça winning it was 4 years in the 80s, when Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad won it twice apiece. The only longer streak when neither won it was for the five years right after the Civil War, or eight if you count the three seasons before war broke out (La Liga was suspended during that time). Those streaks drop to two years if you look for seasons when Real or Barça failed to make the top two spots.

Which is why Lowe's book is a history of the league, as well - Spanish football makes little sense outside the framework of Real vs Barça. He does a good job of picking apart the politics that have latched on to the rivalry, of Catalonia vs Spain, of left-wing vs right-wing, and the different sides in the Civil War. Barcelona fans tend to think of themselves as representing the left, and of Real as being Francisco Franco's pet team - but Lowe shows how much more complicated the reality, especially now that we're 40 years on from Franco's death and 35 since Spain opened to the rest of Europe.

Of course, Real has always been one of my favorite teams to hate, since the first time I saw them was in the 1998 Champions League victory over my hometown team of Juventus. I was only too willing to buy into the propaganda of Barcelona as mes que un club (more than a club), with their Dutch influence and, until a few years ago, their shirt sponsorship deal with Unicef, rather than a traditional for-profit entity.

Admittedly, they've gone and ruined that a bit by getting sponsored by Qatar, of all places, but that didn't stop me enjoying the two epic dismantlings of Manchester United, in 2009 and 2011. The latter of the two I watched in a pub in Bath with my dad, and it was hard not to cheer to see entertaining, passing football win out against kick-and-rush.

What really struck me about the book, though, was how different the narrative in Spain was for the post-war period compared with Italy or Germany, or even the UK. This is, of course, because Spain remained neutral during the war; even though Franco was greatly influenced by Mussolini and Hitler, and benefited from their weapons and materiel during the Civil War, he didn't send Spanish troops to participate, and so was left alone in 1945.

As I read Fear and Loathing, I couldn't help wondering what Italian history would have been like if Mussolini had done the same thing. There was an Italian author a few years ago who imagined just such a scenario, in which Italy thereby became a European and even a world power, but I doubt it would have happened like that (after all, Spain isn't exactly a power-player these days). It took a while, but Germany eventually faced up to its role in World War II; Spain, meanwhile, let its own Fascist dictatorship run its course (and was enormously lucky that King Juan Carlos, Franco's successor, turned out to favor democracy). Italy, by contrast, did neither, which is why Mussolini's legacy continues to distort Italian politics - sometimes literally, as in the case of his granddaughter Alessandra.

Back to the football, though, I'd say the greatest disappointment of Sid Lowe's book is how he glosses over the last few years. I suppose this couldn't be any other way, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are probably harder to get interviews with than greats from the past, like Hristo Stoichkov or Alfredo di Stefano. But it's still a shame not to have more on how the current situation, where Messi and Ronaldo seem to break each other's records every week, looks as an extension of the past.

Still, it's not hard to draw your own conclusions. Real and Barça long ago outgrew the rest of the Spanish league, such that they compete on European Cups. This year's Barça triumph against Juventus, and last year's Real win against hometown rivals Atletico, are just an extension of the rivalry - effectively, Barcelona saying to Real, "You may have more European Cups than anybody, you may have won your tenth, but we've been catching up."

With that in mind, it's hard to see when the rest of Europe catching up - there have been years when Real or Barça have lost, but seen through Sid Lowe's book, those are looking more and more like blips.  After all, even during England's dominance in the Champions League, Barcelona won every time it got to the final.

It'd be nice to see the rest of Europe catch up, but even if they don't, at least Real and Barça will provide good entertainment.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A Taste of Portland

Just got back this week from a trip to Portland, and I'm wondering why the heck it took me so long to visit!

Actually, I know exactly why: not having lived in the US for a long time, it was quite difficult to justify trips to random places that weren't major international hubs. But it begs the question of why I got the idea in the first place...

I've always been glancingly familiar with the place - Powell's City of Books, Portlandia and Chuck Palahniuk, for instance - and in more recent years this was allied with an interest in the Pacific Northwest in general. I almost went to journalism school at University of Oregon in Eugene, to boot (though I don't regret choosing to go to New York instead). More recently, I started watching Grimm, NBC's extraordinarily silly but addictive show based on fairy tales, so it's been top of mind for a while.

So the opportunity came up this year, and I figured on spending almost a week there - I've had good weeks off on my own in the likes of Paris and Singapore, so I thought I'd try it out in the continental US. I found cheap flights and an expensive hotel, got a guidebook and got in touch with a friend from college who (it turns out) lives there.

It was nice to experience a relatively compact American city, which I could get around by public transport or even on foot - I've really only spent time in New York and SF and LA, so Portland's size (600,000 in the city and 3 million or so in the metropolitan area) was a nice change. The place also felt like a slightly larger, less scuzzy version of Berkeley. Not that I have anything against Berkeley in general, but my abiding memories of the place include my dad and grandma being politely asked by a drug dealer to take another set of stairs up to where we'd parked in a parking structure there, or a guy outside a shop rather less politely flicking his cigarette at my dad's head and accusing him of being an imperialist.

Portland's motto

I'm sure Portland is full of experiences like that, but the place seemed to be pretty free of pretensions - unlike hipsters in London or SF, folks mostly just seemed to go about their own business, and were shockingly polite. When I was taking the MAX into town from the airport on my first day, there was a guy helping out another tourist by directing her to her stop, and when she got off he said to her, "Have a nice day!" I defy you to find a similar experience on BART, the subway or the Tube.

Not that Portland's completely without problems. Despite being possibly the most expensive hotel I've ever stayed in, the Courtyard Portland Convention Center was in a not particularly desirable part of town on the northeast side of town. I went exploring a couple of times (looking for a drugstore and a post office, respectively), and while I never felt unsafe, it certainly looked more rundown than the neighborhoods west of the Willamette. I later discovered that the Northeast was traditionally where Portland's African-American community was forced to live; much like Harlem in New York, it's clear that urban renewal hasn't been good for everybody.

I may have spaced the hotel search until it was too late, but my impression is that there's not a lot of middle ground - you can either pay loads, or stay in a shitty neighborhood far from downtown (or both), but there isn't much under $1,000 for a week. The McMenamin hotels might be the exception, but I didn't book those because they weren't available for the times I was there.

As far as attractions, I mainly eschewed the breweries, and found museums to haunt instead. I spent a fun enough morning at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and a nice afternoon at the Portland Art Museum. There was a lot of art from the last 150 years or so at the latter, including a room devoted to the French impressionists, which on consideration is probably my favorite style and period. There was a lot more modern and contemporary art, but I returned to the Impressionist room on my way out of the museum, and was fortunate enough to find that an employee was giving a friend of his a personal tour.

Portland also seems to have rather visible Asian communities, as evidenced by the Japanese Garden over by Washington Park, and the Lan Su Chinese garden in Chinatown. The former is situated on a hill overlooking town, and it comes with beautiful views of Mount Hood; Lan Su, meanwhile, is in the middle of probably the most rundown part of downtown Portland, but once you entered the walls it was easy to forget you were in the middle of a city. I visited the morning before I left, and spent a nice hour first wandering the walkways and then enjoying some dim sum and tea in the tea house.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden

Another thing I didn't do much of was the outdoorsy stuff that Oregon is famous for, mainly because I didn't want to rent a car. But my friend did take me on a walk along the Springwood Trail, along the Willamette, down to Sellwood and back up along the west side of the river. That took us back through OHSU and the Waterfront, which plays host to the Saturday Market every week.

The other thing I kind of splurged on was food - my first night in town I found one of the food cart pods and downed a pair of Korean tacos, which set the tone for a week of good eating. I'm not suggesting there aren't any big chains in Portland, but it was certainly easy to find something local, especially downtown, and there was a good range of prices, from the food carts up to Swank and Swine, where my friend suggested getting dinner the second night I was in town.

The Voodoo Doll, from Voodoo Doughnut

I've generally said that European cities are better for things to see, while American cities are better for things to do (ie, outdoors pursuits), but I'm happy to see that this doesn't necessarily apply to Portland. If you like city breaks, taking in museums, bookstores and nice food, it's a nice getaway for anything up to a week.