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Sunday, 21 May 2017

Early thoughts on Luke Cage and Iron Fist

Because I'm a glutton for punishment, and I sometimes disregard my own advice, I've started watching Iron Fist on Netflix. This is after seeing some not-awesome reviews on the AV Club, and a friend on Facebook warning me that it was terrible.

Turns out that, at least four episodes in, Iron Fist isn't terrible, but it's also probably the least compelling of the four Marvel-related series that Netflix has done so far. But there are nine episodes to go, so it could start sucking really bad!

Specifically, the thing that makes it the worst of the shows, after Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, is Iron Fist himself. Each of the other title characters is sympathetic and compelling (more or less) - with Daredevil you get to see Matt Murdock balancing his life as a lawyer and as a vigilante, with Jessica Jones you get a survivor's perspective on sexual abuse, and with Luke Cage you have an old-school blaxploitation hero who can punch through walls.

Your mileage may vary on all of these, but the point is that when the main characters are onscreen you're interested in what they're doing. This doesn't seem to be the case with Iron Fist - or at least it's taking way too long to get to the point.

On the other hand, a lot of the other stuff that's happening around Danny Rand is pretty neat. Colleen Wing, in particular, seems to have a lot more going on, character-wise, and I want to see where they take her character. To a lesser extent, the machinations of the Meachums and their dealings with the Hand are also pretty interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it ties in with Daredevil, or how it leads into the upcoming Defenders series.

As far as Luke Cage, these aren't early thoughts, because I've gone through and watched it, but as I said, it was clearly an update of movies like Shaft and Dolemite. This led to some cheesy acting and dialogue, but on the other hand it was neat to see the machinations around Harlem. And Mike Colter didn't seem as well-used as in Jessica Jones, but he makes for a good lead to build his show around.

I also really liked Cottonmouth, and thought that it was a shame they traded him in for Diamondback. The latter villain had a greater connection to Luke, of course, but Mahershala Ali's performance was pretty great - they did a nice job of showing the two sides of his character, and the way they pulled him in different directions was underlined by his increasing loss of control as the show went on.

Or, to put it another way, he would have fit into the Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale storyline from the Wire.

The Marvel shows have featured a pleasingly high number of Wire alumni, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that the black-themed Luke Cage should draw on that show for thematic inspiration. And if it doesn't quite reach the same heights as the Wire, well, what can? But at least they're getting inspired by the best.

Now that Iron Fist is out, the next time we see these characters is going to be in the Defenders, because apparently everything has to now tie into a shared universe and bring characters together as a team. That seems kind of a shame, because it feels like we're getting a pretty big gap to revisit Daredevil and Jessica Jones in particular, and you have to question whether such a long hiatus will do either show much good. It's possible (perhaps even likely) that Netflix is treating them all as substantially the same show, for production purposes, but as I say, I'd rather see what the DD and JJ showrunners have in store for us next, rather than taking a long detour to effectively replay the Avengers movies.

The one exception is the upcoming Punisher series - Jon Bernthal was pretty great in the role for Daredevil, so I'm curious to see where his story goes. I even just started reading Garth Ennis's old Marvel Max book featuring the Punisher, so I'll be looking out for any influences from that.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Looking Forward to Juve-Real in the Champions League

You know what I just realized earlier this week, when I was going through my old blog posts? I failed, unaccountably, to write a post-match report on last year's Champions League final!

In my defense, it was a bit of bad scheduling on my part - I found myself at SFO on the day of the game, watching bits and pieces while waiting to get called to my gate for my flight to Buenos Aires. Then, when I did head to my gate, I kept up with things on my phone, and can now definitively report that if you ever want to ratchet up the tension of watching a penalty shootout, do it on the BBC's or the Guardian's minute-by-minute reports while waiting to board an international flight.

Also, let's be honest, what takeaways could there be from an almost note-perfect rematch of the 2014 final? Well, okay, loads - the fact that it was, as I say, almost note-perfect in how it played out. Sure, 2016 didn't feature three extra-time goals like the previous meeting, but morally it might as well have done.

Funnily enough we got another rematch this year, of sorts, though in the semi-final instead of the final. Real once again beat Atletico, this time over two legs, though Atleti gave their rivals a big scare in the second leg. This puts Real in its second final in as many years, and its third in four years, as well as its first time defending its title in the Champions League era (and its first time since winning it in each of the first five times the tournament was held).

They meet Juventus on 3 June, which also marks Juve's second final in the last three years. This makes it my home team's most dominant period in the competition since the late 90's, when it made the final three times in a row and won it once.

So what does this year hold? I'm obviously hoping for a Juventus victory, though I understand that Real Madrid probably have the odds in their favor. The bods at Wildstat.com aren't much help in their head-to-head ranking of the two teams' meetings: Juve has the slight edge over all, with 9 wins in 19 meetings, but Real has more experience winning this competition. In fact, Real's gotten to the final 14 times compared with Juve's 8, but once there has won the competition 11 times, whereas Juve's won it just twice.

Stats are maybe not the best indicators of future results, but they certainly give an indication of what's likely to happen, and my suspicion is that Real's going to win this one. As I said, they have more experience playing in the Champions League final, and more experience winning it. One need only look at 2014 and 2016 to see that even if they are held to a standstill in the regular 90 minutes, they always have enough left in the tank to win it in extra time or penalties.

I don't doubt that Juventus have that level of professionalism and energy, but I think that Madrid are just better at showing up for these kinds of games, and I also think that playing over one leg, rather than two, means Real will be on their guard to avoid slipping up. Moreover, comparing this match with Juve's previous appearance at this stage, against Barcelona in 2015, we're once again pitting one of the best attacks in Europe against one of the best defenses in Europe (if not the best).

That match ended 3-1 to Barcelona, and the Juve backline that night will likely still be playing on 3 June, though they'll each be two years older. That age, of course, hasn't stopped them from being the stingiest back line in this year's tournament, with three goals conceded all season (and a 3-0 shutout of Barcelona themselves over two legs). And Cristiano Ronaldo is also starting to slow down a little, though that's meant he's deadly in a different role than what he used to play - and he's still surrounded by an amazing forward line for Real.

And yet...

That slight edge does go to Juventus, with 23 goals for and 19 goals conceded. Will it be enough to win the tournament, or will Spain's dominance of the Champions League extend to a fourth year?

We'll find out in just under three weeks.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A Left At War With Itself

So the fascists didn't win the presidential election in France today. Hurrah!

Except the left appears to made itself an irrelevancy, by losing out in the first round, enabling centrist Emmanuel Macron (who some of my friends on Facebook describe as a neoliberal, about which more anon) to be the standard bearer for reasonable, non-fascist politics.

What's the opposite of hurrah?

I didn't vote in the French election, of course, and I don't really know Macron's politics. If I could have, of course, I would have happily voted for him, to do my part against Marine Le Pen. A quick glance at his Wikipedia page shows that his policy positions aren't too different from mine, though I'm not in total concordance with him on his support for forcing internet companies to allow government access to encrypted communications, and I'm not sure his €500 "culture pass" is necessarily the way to stop French Muslim youth from becoming radicalized.

I guess this makes me a neoliberal to be opposed as well?

This kind of talk has been depressingly common of late, and I'm here this week to call down a pox on both the houses of the left, throughout the world. From the US, to the UK, to France, and wherever people are attacking each other for being insufficiently socialist, or for being too socialist; effectively for replaying that "People's Front of Judea" scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian.



But I also don't want to apportion blame only to the really leftist side. I can get that out of the way now, if you like:

I was un-convinced by Bernie Sanders, though I agree with much of what he said and would have happily voted for him if he'd won the nomination. Specifically, I don't think he'd have automatically won those rural or Rust Belt votes that eluded Hillary Clinton, and it's hard to get a sense of his positions on foreign policy, beyond wanting to bring home the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet more than Senator Sanders himself it's certain segments of his support, who seemed to have swallowed wholesale the lies about Hillary Clinton, alongside the completely true things that made her not a great candidate. I don't know how big a demographic of Sanders voters went for Trump, but I have seen those people - they're out there, and the internet echo machine that turned Clinton into something slightly more hated than Satan is heavily to blame.

While we're talking about her, Clinton and her cabal need a lot of blame too. For one thing there was the whole "her turn" approach of her campaign, where everyone dissenting against her was considered to be insufficiently Democratic. This is the same group that pulled dirty tricks on the Sanders camp, and that has refused to fight down ticket, even at state or local level, leaving the Republicans (and worse) to crawl in.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn earns my nope because of his poor handling of the whole Brexit thing. Again, I agree with him on a lot of issues (though notably not on his opposition to NATO), but with his old-left distaste for the EU, he's failed to provide a reasonable alternative to the Conservatives, and I see it as eminently possible that after the June 8th elections Labour under Corbyn could find itself not just decimated but reduced to a party not much bigger than the Liberal Democrats. His heart is in the right place when he wants to protect the National Health Service, but what if he sided with Tim Farron and said that he'd stop the Brexit train if he became prime minister?

Again, I have some choice words for the Blairite wing of the party. My main objection is that they seemed determined to campaign as Tories-lite, which I think even Tony Blair himself was too smart to do - he is, after all, the only Labour leader in my lifetime to have won an election. But Ed Miliband's one advantage, as history will likely not recall, is that if he'd won the election in 2015 there wouldn't even have been a referendum on EU membership. The fact that everyone else on that side of the party was even less presentable than him is... distinctly uninspiring.

Then there's Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in France. I always find it worrying when I agree with the Economist on left-wing politicians, but I can't deny that he cut a not particularly reassuring figure. As with Corbyn, I didn't agree with his positions on Europe or NATO - which aren't all that different from Le Pen's.

To sum up, what I find annoying about these far-left wings of the parties is their supporters' lack of tolerance for viewpoints different from their own but still recognizably leftist - Corbyn supporters seem to be particularly prone to accusing people who disagree with them of being "red Tories", which is just absurd. This is Justin Bieber politics, where any divergence from your own views is seen as a personal attack on you, and it needs to stop.

And what else needs to stop is the traditional wings' insistence on moving ever further right. I've mentioned the Labour Party, but the Democrats seem to have gone as corporate as all get-out in the last decade - there are a lot of things I admire about Barack Obama, but I'm not convinced he saw the urgency of the growing income inequality in the US, or how it was translating into right-wing support and left-wing apathy. And there's only so much that he can blame on Republican intransigence.

The main thing that I need to criticize both sides of the left-wing parties for is choosing this moment, when radical right-wing populism and nationalist/racist demagoguery are resurgent, to focus on destroying one another. It's easy to blame the more leftist sides of each party, because they're louder (especially on Twitter), but if Donna Brazile had shifted more of the DNC's resources toward winning votes in key states, rather than smearing Senator Sanders, we'd at least have a safer ratio of Democratic senators and representatives in the Capitol.

What's heartening is that in the US in particular, people are mobilizing, and not just along party lines. Voters in both parties seem to have noticed that they're in danger of losing their access to healthcare and to national monuments, clean air and water, etc. Macron's victory in France today is another welcome step toward restoring sanity, but I hope both that it doesn't get undermined by the far left, and that he doesn't further discredit mainstream, centrist politics with scandals and overly corporate-friendly policies.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Let's All Do a Little Less

As anyone who knows me might be aware, I'm into Tim Ferriss's books. I read the Four-Hour Workweek every year, and have the Four-Hour Body, Four-Hour Chef and Tools of Titans on my Kindle app on my iPad. I listen to his podcast regularly, though not religiously, and like catching him on other podcasts - his chats with Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist and Marc Maron on WTF are particularly good.

I also listen (sporadically) to a podcast called the Side Hustle Show. It's hosted by Nick Loper, and features people who have turned their hobbies or whatever into paying side businesses. He references Tim Ferriss from time to time, though to my knowledge hasn't had Tim on his own show.

The reason I mention both here is that there was an interesting confluence of ideas between them, which I've been thinking about ever since. Because Nick Loper expressed it in the most digestible form, I'll call it by the name he uses, though with the understanding that Tim Ferriss also advocates it. Specifically, it's in the Side Hustle episode called "Too Small to Fail", and Nick Loper refers to it as micro-habits.

Micro-habits are too small to fail because, ideally, they are binary - you either accomplish them or you don't. The time investment is small, which means the attention investment is also small, and therefore the habit is easy to create. It can be drawing a single line of a picture per day, writing a single line of your novel, or doing a single pushup per day.

That last one comes from Tim Ferriss, via his chapter on Matt Mullenweg (Wordpress founder) in Tools of Titans. Mullenweg apparently does a single pushup before bed every night, which has helped him get in shape. It is, in fact, so easy to stick with that I've been doing it for a few months, and have seen a great improvement in my pushup form (though on occasions where I've tried to work out my max number of reps, the best I can do with good form is eleven).

Tim Ferriss mentions other micro-habits and ice-breakers in his books, including the fact that IBM sales people used to have a target of one call per day. He notes that keeping the habit small is intentional, because it means it's easy to say you've accomplished what you wanted to do, and because surmounting that initial hurdle makes it easier to pick up the phone again, or finish your picture, or whatever. It's not necessarily better for your pushups, but let's leave that aside for a moment.


Any big endeavor requires a significant investment of time, energy, attention, or whatever you want to call it. Breaking it down into its smallest component parts reduces the complexity and makes it less daunting to just begin, and when you begin you find that momentum carries you on over a long time.

I've made reference before to methodical ways of writing, so this is probably not a surprise to any readers out there. But I suspect it's not obvious to everybody - even Tim Ferriss sometimes blabs about how you need blocks of hours and hours for creative endeavors. Three hour blocks of productivity are probably great, but at least with micro-habits I've been able to check off the box of writing and doing pushups almost every day for several months, and if I don't always write for a full hour, or have the ability to do more than eleven pushups with good form (yet), at least I know I'm getting things done.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Vicarious Travel with Rick Steves

I've recently discovered the travel shows of Rick Steves, which are usually carried on PBS here in the States, but are also available officially on YouTube (i.e., Rick Steves himself has published them on his channel). There are over 90 of them on YouTube so far, with some episodes going back as far as 1995, and I've been going through them, in geographical rather than chronological order.

As best I can tell, the reason I started was due to my interest in Dutch (the language I'm currently learning on Duolingo), and the fact that I was looking for YouTube videos on Amsterdam. Rick Steves's shows are all in English, of course, so there wasn't going to be any language-learning boost, but he made the city look so great that I quickly snapped up his episode on the rest of the Netherlands (which I'd actually watched once before) and from there on to the rest of Europe.

It's hard to explain the allure, beyond the fact that I'm in the midst of a big bout of wanderlust/itchy feet/whatever you want to call it. Yet he and his team make every country look great, and I've been happy to devour episodes on places I know fairly well, like London or Paris, alongside the ones I don't know as well. It helps that even in the places I know, he unearths sights and activities beyond what I've already seen.

To put it another way, in contrast with Michael Palin's travel shows, Rick Steves goes much further in-depth on each country he's visiting. This is because Michael Palin's shows are based on strict schedules imposed by the "stunt" nature of his programs - like Around the World in 80 Days or Full Circle - meaning that most countries get only a few scenes, depending on how much ground Palin's team has to cover. Which isn't to slight them, because I do love Michael Palin's shows.

The other thing that I love about Rick Steves's show is the way his interests, particularly in art and music, shine through. An episode I was watching just this evening, on Vienna, had him putting his piano skills to use in explaining the differences in sound between piano, harpsichord and clavichord (apparently at the start of his career Rick supported himself by giving piano lessons). He also has a clear background in art history, as each episode features detailed explanations of the meaning and context of various works of art or architecture - in short, he's the ideal tour guide for making sense of what you're seeing.

What's funny to me is that even just a few years ago I'd have probably scoffed at his show. I may have more fully embraced my American-ness since college, but I've long maintained a certain snobbiness when it comes to American tourists in Europe. It was a running joke between my (American) friends in Germany about avoiding American tour groups, and even now I tend to be a bit dismissive of Americans talking about Europe, as I suspect a lot of them barely go beneath the surface of the place.

It's easy for me to be snobby, of course, because I actually speak some of the local languages and spent a lot of years living in Europe - but I'm willing to accept I may be judging my fellow citizens harshly. More than that, it's likely that I take traveling through Europe for granted, which is probably unfair to people who don't have such a natural "in" to the continent as I do. But the stereotype of American tourists remains.

I won't say the Rick Steves shows are making me want to take a tour, but I can't deny that in presenting each city or region or country the way he has, Rick's making me really want to spend more time back there. Since moving back here to the US, my European visits have been limited to London and Turin, for family and friends, while my leisure travel has focused more on the rest of the world (or even on other parts of the US). The one exception was in 2014, when I finally fulfilled my dream of traveling from London to Turin by train.

If I have a criticism of Rick's shows, it's that he goes hard on the traditional tourist destinations, but has done less on Germany, despite its size and excellent infrastructure. Of the 96 episodes available on YouTube, only four are devoted to Germany, while France has 11 and Italy has a whopping 17. To put it another way, Rome and Paris were the subject of three episodes each, while Berlin has only one.

That said, the preview for season 9 (which appears to be available on PBS's site, but hasn't been uploaded to YouTube yet) shows that he's rectifying that imbalance to a certain extent, with three or four episodes on Germany. I'm also pleased that the new season has a pair of episodes on Romania and Bulgaria, which are surely on few tourists' itineraries (American or not) but deserve to be better-known.

At this point I've watched most of his episodes on Western Europe, with the German-speaking and Nordic countries still to go before I get to Eastern Europe, but I'm looking forward to all of it. Some will be to revisit places I know, while the rest will be to get acquainted with new spots, and to get ideas for places to visit. All I'd like is for Rick (or someone else) to do a similar travel show for other parts of the world - Asia, Australia, South America, even Africa, would benefit from this kind of in-depth travel TV. Here's hoping...

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Two phrases we need to abandon

Can we please stop using these two phrases in our political discourse:

"A rising tide lifts all boats" and

"Wanting the President to fail means wanting America to fail"

I feel like I've been hearing them a lot recently (especially the second one, especially from the right), and to be honest, it needs to stop. The one about rising tides has bothered me since graduate school, when some douche who worked in PR used it, and while I see the logic in it, the political environment we're in shows that it is absolutely not true.

Specifically, if it were true that a rising tide lifts all boats, there wouldn't have been a class of pissed-off working-class whites in the Rust Belt who were so annoyed at both parties (but especially the Democrats) that they voted for the Orange Toddler. On the other side of the Atlantic, working class people in northern English cities - former strongholds of Labour - wouldn't have voted to cut themselves off from the EU single market.

These are people - to torture the metaphor further - who don't even have boats. It's fine for people with jobs (particularly with well-paying jobs) to say that everyone benefits from a certain level of overall prosperity. And to a certain extent, it's true - the poor here are probably a little better off than they are in truly poor countries. Though given that the rural American poor can't geoarbitrage their income and commute from Zimbabwe, I can't agree with some idiot economist who critiqued Paul Theroux's Deep South on the grounds that "poverty doesn't exist in America" because it isn't poverty on the same degree as in Africa, Southeast Asia, etc.

But the way the "rising tide lifts all boats" bromide is usually deployed is code for, "what's good for the banks is good for America" (or whichever country). What we've discovered since 2007 is that this is the worst kind of bullshit - as can be seen by the increasingly obscene salaries and bonuses they get in the financial industry, while the rest of the economy starts talking about how some communities are just never going to work again.

I could go on about rising tides all day long, but I want to turn to the other phrase that needs to be banished immediately. I saw a Facebook post from Arrow star Stephen Amell (who's Canadian), dating from after the election, where he talked about people disagreeing with one another. It was all fair enough, but then he pulled out the line about "wanting the President to fail means wanting America to fail", and he just lost me.

This is just sanctimonious horse-shit, designed to stifle criticism, much the same way that assholes who support Brexit (redundant, I know) tell those who supported remaining that they need to deal with reality and stop moaning. It's made worse by the knowledge that most of the people bleating about how we all need to support the President were hoping for Obama's agenda to fail for the previous eight years... and if they themselves weren't actively hoping for that, they sure as hell voted for people who did, and articulated that wish at every opportunity. Where were these people when Mitch McConnell said his goal was for President Obama's agenda to fail?

Look, if the whoever's in the White House has an agenda that's going to roll back civil rights protections, environmental protections, labor protections and make our borders and soldiers serving overseas less safe, then we need to vigorously oppose that agenda. If that specific agenda succeeds, America fails - if that agenda fails, America succeeds. Just because someone's in the White House doesn't mean that everything they do is sanctified.

You (a notional You) may think that Obama's agenda presented an existential threat to the United States, and that's, y'know, fine, I guess. You're an asshole, but as far as I know being an asshole isn't a crime. You don't even have to keep your opinions about how poor people don't deserve healthcare or the vote or whatever to yourself. Just don't tell me I'm rooting for America to fail.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

In Defense of Not Watching Bad Movies

I was perusing my timeline on Facebook not long ago, when I found a discussion between a friend of mine and some of his social network on the merits of the new Iron Fist TV show on Netflix. It had been panned by some critics recently, but my friend's reaction was that he was going to be watching it anyway, because he didn't really trust critics.

This is a fair comment, but the the reason it struck me was because I heard him defending his desire to see Batman vs Superman last year, in the face of critics talking about how bad it was (this was before my own review of it, but around the time I was talking about how unappealing it looked).

Quick digression: isn't it scary how I devoted two blog posts to a movie I loathe?

When BvS came out I talked about what it portended in the realm of politics and how America sees itself. Because we're through the looking glass on that score, I thought for this post I'd narrow the focus back down to the question of why nerds still support the shit that studios shovel at us.

In my review of BvS, I note that Suicide Squad was "a work of art" in comparison. That might be a little overblown, and Suicide Squad was pretty unmemorable on many fronts, but not the complete disaster some reviewers painted it to be. Yet Suicide Squad was also the cause of a bunch of nerds going all "alternative facts" on Rotten Tomatoes in response to the reviews it had aggregated (I'm serious).

Reading through that USA Today story, it's unclear what the creator of the petition was up to - either he's a troll, or un-balanced, or some combination of the two (beyond the redundant nature of that statement). But it's also clear that people who are into SF and fantasy and all that jazz are still operating on a scarcity mentality, even though there's a glut of movies and TV based on our favorite properties.

The conventional wisdom is that such stuff wasn't so common until recently, in part because it was usually so bad, and us poor geeks and nerds had to ferociously defend our stuff against people who scoffed at the likes of X-Men or Blade adaptations. And it's true that, Superman and Batman aside, there really weren't that many good comics adaptations around.

That said, I recently compiled my own list of my favorite movies from each year I've been alive, and found that it wasn't until Die Hard (1988) that I listed a film that wasn't even loosely in the SFF canon. I had the likes of Alien, The Terminator and Back to the Future - all classics - which means in terms of nerd-stuff there was plenty going on.

And anyway, we really are in a glut now, and have been since 2008, with Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Of the two, it's clear that Iron Man's the movie that really kicked off the current run on big-name Marvel movies, and that led to DC also trying to build an inter-connected cinematic universe. Not only is Marvel's Cinematic Universe intricately connected, to the point that the films become gibberish, but they're linked to Netflix's shows and Agents of SHIELD as well.

The point I'm making, in my usual roundabout way, is that we're no longer in a position where we have to go ballistic on critics for shitting on our movies. There's so much out there that Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies, and instead of complaining when a review aggregator scores Suicide Squad poorly, we should be boycotting Warners and demanding that they make better movies.

OK, that's a little simplistic too, because no one sets out to make a bad movie (except, of course, for the guys who made Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). But I don't really agree that I have to experience every shitty comic book adaptation before I can complain about it - as cool as a Batman and Superman movie sounded, nothing appealed about the damn thing as I found out more, and I'm glad I saved the ten bucks or so I'd have spent in theaters.

By the way, this isn't a slight on my friend, mentioned up at the top. It's also not a slight on Iron Fist, which I expect I'll have a look at once I wrap up Deep Space Nine and Luke Cage. I do, however, see this as a time to remind my fellow nerds that we don't have to love everything that's served to us. Whether America (and the world) likes it or not, everyone else is watching what we want to watch, so we can afford to be picky about which movies we support.

Like Logan. Holy crap, what a well-done movie. Go see that.