Saturday, 18 June 2016

Euro 2016: Some Talking Points

Four years on from the last one, two years on from Brazil 2014, I'm happy to report that the European Championships are back - I haven't been able to do a day-by-day rundown of what's happened, since I work and the matches are all broadcast early. One of the unfortunate things about watching a European tournament from the West Coast, I guess.

In any case, here are some thoughts about the tournament so far, with each team having played twice in the group stage:

Too much football
Well, it doesn't really feel that way, because I haven't been watching Copa America, but in another way, it totally feels like there's too much football on to follow. I understand it's the Copa America Centenario, but it's a little unfortunate that they decided to schedule it against the Euros. And yet, it's been entertaining seeing the results from a little closer to home (including a pretty spectacular crash-and-burn from Brazil). Also, a small part of me regrets that the African Cup of Nations isn't also on...

Goals, goals, goals?
So I was trying to decide if there had been a lot of goals scored so far, or if it's been a cagey affair. Because I'm a research analyst, and I'm trained to look at numbers and see what stories they tell, I can now report that there's actually been fewer goals per game than the past two tournaments. Euro 2016 has seen an average 1.96 goals per game, compared with 2.9 at Brazil 2014 and a whopping 3.8 at Euro 2012. There have been two 0-0 draws so far in the group stage, compared with three in 2014 and none at all (!) in 2012.

It FELT like there'd been a decent amount of goals, though, because we didn't start getting scoreless draws until just a couple of days ago, but on the whole, the games have been low-scoring. On Matchday 1 there were only three games won by a margin of more than one goal, and none in which either team scored more than two (or in which the total number of goals in a game was more than 3). As of Matchday 2 there have been a couple of 3-0 games, and a 2-2 draw, balanced out by two 0-0 results.

I haven't seen anyone refer to the number of goals yet, but some comments I've read or heard on podcasts might shed some light on why it's been so low. One issue might be the expanded format - we've gone this year from 16 teams to 24, which entails all kinds of weird permutations to determine who goes through as a third-place finisher. The extra teams means that worse teams are participating - the likes of Hungary, Iceland and Albania have been held up as teams that wouldn't have qualified under the old system. And yet... Hungary shocked everyone by beating Austria 2-0 in their first game, and Iceland have nicked a pair of 1-1 draws, playing entertainingly if not always fluidly.

The existence of third place finishing might have something to do with it too, as it appears to reward playing cagily and not conceding too many goals. And the field is still quite open, as any of the third-place teams as of now could win and go through, while only one team (Ukraine) has been definitely eliminated.

Another possible cause is the dearth of good strikers, apparently. I haven't looked at it systematically, but some of the big powers - Italy, Spain, Germany, France - don't really have any good options up front. The only big team that does have a good strike force is England, with Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy (who incidentally were the first English top-scorers in the Premier League since 1999-2000). Spain and Germany, in fact, have pretty much done away with the need for strikers, though Alvaro Morata did manage to bag two against Turkey this morning. It would be interesting to see if this holds true across all teams, and if so why, but it's Saturday night and I don't know if I have the time to go looking myself. But watch this space!

Thank gosh for streaming
The other noteworthy thing, at least for me, is that this is the first tournament I've watched exclusively on streaming. I did have to nick a Comcast profile off a friend, because my mom's moved away from the Bay Area and I can't use hers, and I also did have to get my home internet upgraded (although that's more because I'm working from home more regularly now).

In 2014 I managed to watch a lot of the games for free on through Univision's website, but they've wised up, and anyway aren't showing the tournament themselves - slightly less interest if the Copa America's on, I suppose. But it's interesting that with some strategically deployed technology and cannily downloaded apps, I can stream games to my TV and watch as normal - or log into my phone or laptop and watch them there.

Thinking back, four years ago, in England, it doesn't even seem like it would have been an option, or at least not for all matches. Even further back, in 2002, I remember having to slip unnoticed to a colleague's desk to watch Italy get knocked out on a portable TV - now I can just sign into whatever device I want and watch there. It's maybe not the most earth-shattering use case, but it does sometimes feel like all this tech isn't a bad thing.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for now - I'll be back after the group stage ends, and hopefully before the knockout round begins with some more. Or at the latest, on July 6th to think about the tournament as a whole...

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Argentina Hoy

I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but when I go somewhere I don't read up on it a whole lot. I try and get a sense of stuff to do there, of course, but I don't try to become an expert before I arrive. Part of it is probably the malign influence of Paul Theroux, who claims in his travel books not to read about places before he visits, so he can explore them on his own terms. It was in this spirit that I went to Argentina a couple of weeks ago.

Central Buenos Aires, day one

Why Argentina? A number of reasons - the most immediate being that my friend Sita, who writes her own blog "Buenos Aires - Life on the Edge (of a Continent)", has been living there for over a year and invited me down to visit. More generally I've also been fascinated by the place for a long time, since it's where a lot of European (and especially Italian) migration to the New World ended up, and my own grandfather ended up there after World War II, as part of the general Turkish-Armenian diaspora following the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Buenos Aires was pretty different from any other place I've been... though at the same time, parts of it looked a lot like places that I do know. Some neighborhoods looked like any part of Europe, while others were clearly Latin America. It's a country that boasts a history of immigration and diversity, a real melting pot, though the only language I heard on the street other than Spanish was Chinese (and that was only once).

I suppose the first thing that caught me off guard was the sharp division between rich and poor that exists there. This was because, on the cab ride from the airport to Sita's house in Quilmes, the first thing we passed through on leaving the freeway was a pretty wretched-looking slum. I learned that this was the villa (pronounced vee-zha, because of the weird Argentine accent), and it's Argentina's answer to Brazil's favelas - Sita and her husband Alistair said they'd heard gunshots at night once or twice, coming from the villa.

On the other hand, I have a work colleague who lives in the center of town, and her neighborhood might as well have been in Italy. Next door to her building, in fact, was a store that sold artisanal pasta and olive oil. That part of town has the stores and chains you'd recognize, as well as ones that are local, and was mostly peopled by residents who wouldn't look out of place in Turin or London.

The other interesting thing about the city was how artistic it is. The connections to Latin American writers are well-known, with Borges being referenced all over - a cafe across the street from the Recoleta Cemetery has a pretty unnerving fiberglass statue of him at one of the tables - and with poems or extracts from stories about Buenos Aires on the sidewalks in some parts of town.

The view in Recoleta

There's also a number of great museums, of which I caught one of the most famous, the Bellas Artes. It has a great collection of European works dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, and a great gallery of Argentine art as well.

Probably the most distinctive thing I experienced, though - apart from rounding a corner in a cafe on my first day and seeing a couple dancing the tango - was the Palacio Barolo, on my last night in town. It's a skyscraper named for and financed by an Italian businessman who'd come to Argentina in the 1920s, and is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. The number of floors reflects the lines in each canto, and it's divided into sections of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, while also claiming to hold the mortal remains of Dante himself, removed from Italy during World War II. Everything about the place was creepy and evocative though, as we were led on our tour through its darkened corridors by a guide who'd periodically point out a sinister red-robed figure positioned at certain spots in the building.

The other thing I wasn't really expecting was the Armenian community. As I said, I knew that my grandfather had ended up there after the war, and though I didn't manage to discover where he'd been living, my colleague, Sonia, did find an Armenian school and cultural center that does weekly dinners to raise money for class trips to Armenia. It was right across the street from a theater that has the same name as my mom (Siranush), and featured home-cooked Armenian food.

So Buenos Aires, difficult though it could be (for example, trying to find a bus home to Quilmes or determining which streets were safe for me to walk around), was also an excellent introduction to South America. By the end of the week I was navigating the transit between Quilmes and Capital, and within the city proper, without undue problems, and managed to avoid getting caught by muggers or by strikers. And I got to see a little bit outside of town too, when I went to Tigre, a town on the Parana that serves as the summer getaway for Buenos Aires.

Tigre; clearly where Fitzcarraldo ended up

It might not be top of everybody's list of places to visit, but it's good to experience it for yourself - it's a bit schizophrenic but that tension of European and Latin American cultures makes it fascinating. And as Sita can attest, it's even (mostly) safe for vegetarians - though I did have a couple of decent steaks, because it's the thing you do when you go there.
Pretty damn balanced meal, no?

Thursday, 26 May 2016

RIP Darwyn Cooke

I know this comes a little late, but thought I'd share some thoughts on Darwyn Cooke's passing nearly two weeks ago. I didn't know much of his work, but what I did know was DC: The New Frontier, which I picked up a few years ago, on a whim, during a period of my life in which I wasn't really reading comics.

I'd known about it for a while, as I'd heard people mention it in the same breath as The Golden Age, another of my favorite comics stories, so when I got the opportunity to check it out, I was blown away. For a start, the art was gorgeous - Cooke's style was classic and clean, and therefore well-suited to the setting spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s.

And in terms of story, it had everything. It sat kind of within and beside canon, which gave Cooke a lot of room to play with all of the characters that he used - most heartbreakingly in the case of "John Henry", who we later see as an inspiration for John Henry Irons, the kid who grew up to become Steel. But my favorite part of the story was the way it placed each of DC's Silver Age characters in chronological order, so that Barry Allen in his story becomes the new Flash three years before Hal Jordan becomes the new Green Lantern.

For me, The New Frontier works as the middle book in a trilogy of The Golden Age and Kingdom Come, as all three deal with epochal changes affecting every character in the DC Universe. It's not as dark as those two other stories, but too much darkness wouldn't have fit with those characters and that setting - and yet I can think of no higher compliment than to rank a story among them.

More recently, I was pleased to see his name featured among the artists who worked on Batman: The Animated Series. I didn't know who Cooke was in the 1990s, when I was watching the show, and I didn't know about the connection when I read The New Frontier, but it feels right, given Bruce Timm's devotion to classic Batman adventures.

Darwyn Cooke will be sorely missed - and I look forward both to rereading The New Frontier, as well as checking out his work on books like Solo and Catwoman.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 29 April 2016

2016: The Year the Music Died

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 3 April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Gosh, but Batman vs Superman looks unappealing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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