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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.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mass Effect and the Curse of Becoming the New Star Wars

I just finished the Mass Effect trilogy last weekend, amid reports that the next game in the series has finally been given a name (along with almost exactly nothing else). It's fair to say that as I played through Mass Effect 3, it started to consume my life, much like a Reaper consuming a planet's population (now there's an in-joke for you). Also, let me just warn you up top:

It also goes without saying that this is his favorite blog.

To give you an idea, I took the better part of a year to finish Mass Effect 1, as I was doing my usual thing of getting bored and switching out to catch up with other games. I did something similar when I started Mass Effect 2, but only had a single break, after which I powered through the rest of the game and started immediately on part 3, which I played without a single break. Probably the last game I played so single-mindedly was on the NES.

Part of the reason for this fanaticism is clearly the story. Over the three installments you guide your character, Commander Shepard, from life as an ordinary soldier to the person who saves the galaxy from the Reaper threat. At the start you choose how Shepard looks and what his skills and abilities are (I played as a dude, so I'll be referring to Shep as "he" from here on), and then you choose how he reacts to people and situations.

This all involves you more heavily than the so-called sandbox games, like Skyrim or GTA, especially because choices made in one game eventually impact later games - not to the point of keeping you from winning at the end of ME3, but they do affect who's on your team or available to help with the final battle.

One point that Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon made on their Indoor Kids podcasts relating to Mass Effect is that the combat is actually pretty bad compared to, say, Gears of War, but that the main draw is the story. While I've never played Gears, I can see what they mean - and frankly, the fact that the story's such a big part of the game makes up for it. I don't remember all the times it kept me from diving for cover (possibly because there were so many that they blur together after a while), but I do recall the feelings of WTF when I was forced to send one of two characters to their deaths, or when I found myself choosing whether the Quarians or the Geth should survive.

I believe the Indoor Kids also said something to the effect that Mass Effect was effectively this generation's Star Wars, which I find compelling but not necessarily accurate. I could quibble and say that it's more Babylon 5, but really I just don't think it has the cultural reach of Star Wars or Star Trek. Video games are still a niche pursuit, at least at the level of blockbuster games like Mass Effect - they might make jokes about the ending on shows like HBO's Silicon Valley, but I'd say it's still too left-field for something like the Big Bang Theory.

Yet it does hold up with something like the Hyperion series, by Dan Simmons (as the guest on those Indoor Kids episodes, Nick Ahrens, said). Like any good novel, the Mass Effect games present you with a wider world and the rules under which it operates - you can make certain choices (like who to sacrifice at the end of ME1, or with whom to pursue a relationship), but at the end you've gone through a set number of plot points. And like a novel, there are loads of other, smaller stories spider-webbing out of the main narrative, but here you can choose to pursue or ignore them.

Now, when Kumail and Emily said that Mass Effect was like Star Wars (again, assuming it was them who said it), what I suspect they meant is that the game had the same emotional resonance as when Luke blows up the Death Star or rescues Darth Vader's humanity. I mentioned my WTF feelings when sending people to their deaths - I also found myself heartbroken at plot points like Mordin, my Salarian scientist from ME2, sacrificing his life to propagate the cure for the Krogan genophage in ME3, resolving a giant plot thread from way back in ME1.

Because there was time to range around the ship between missions, you'd get to chat to crewmates, and learn that, for instance, Mordin was fond of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. That's one example, but the point is that Mass Effect went out of its way to flesh its characters out, which I've seen little of in the other games I've been playing lately.

As for the ending, I have to say that I'm not that disappointed. I think the extended endings were better, and Bioware should have added those in from the start, but overall I think they had the concept right. There was a sense that all your choices over three games had led to this point - control the Reapers, destroy them or live with them. As I chose my course, I had the same doubt that assailed me whenever there was a big choice, but I also had the precedent of all my previous choices - in the end I chose destruction, knowing that it would also mean the death of my synthetic crewmate, EDI, who had also powered my ship. And while that was sad, it also felt like I had to be loyal to the Shepard character as I'd developed him - the way others played would likely have led them to other choices, and perhaps that's why the game's ending was so controversial.

In any case, I've given myself a break from all the feels, but I expect that at some point soon I'll be trying again - seeing the effects of different choices and character configurations. Which is another feature of the great SF stories, whatever their medium - wanting to experience them again.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Bygone World of Britpop

2015 is turning out to be a big year for anniversaries. The one most in my mind on January 1st was Back to the Future Part II, which was set in 1985 and 2015 (and I feel it's a shame I'm not visiting Vietnam this year to commemorate that poster in the background of one of the shots).

But more recently I read something that reminded me of a more personal anniversary. 2015 marks two decades since the apex of the Britpop movement of music, which was so important to me as a teenager. December 26th will also mark the twentieth anniversary of my first time stepping on British soil (at least outside Heathrow), which was accompanied by a frenetic CD-buying expedition to pick up the exciting new albums by Blur (The Great Escape), Pulp (Different Class) and... er... Menswear. Guess they can't all be winners.

So when I realized that, I decided to reread The Last Party, John Harris's account of the Britpop years, informed by his own experiences in the thick of it, when he was a music journalist. But the interesting thing is, as I read, it occurred to me that not only was I reading a chronicle of a bygone time, I was also reading an artifact of that bygone time's last gasp.

I got the book in 2004, toward the end of my first stint living in Britain. Despite the fact that we were then almost a decade removed from Britpop's glory years, it didn't feel like 1995 was that remote. For a couple of years, for instance, I'd revived the old Blur v Oasis debate with my flatmate Ian, who claimed to be northern (despite being from Telford, in the Midlands), so he was an Oasis partisan. My next flatmate, Dave, was a few years older and had the original LP singles off Suede's first album, which I remember handling with the due reverence the one time he brought them out to show off.

More importantly, 2004 was before YouTube and Facebook, and before iTunes had effectively killed physical music sales and the album as artistic statement. As such, it was also the year I bought the most CDs I've ever bought before or since - 48, to be precise. I once held the lofty ambition of averaging a new CD each week, but I don't think I ever achieved it. More to the point, I spent 2014 (and all of 2015 so far) without buying any new music, so it's unlikely I ever will hit that magical number of 52.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that 2004 had more in common with 1995 than it does with 2015. Listening to Radio One on Sunday mornings with the paper, poring over the Observer Music Monthly's list of the 100 best British albums of all time, seeking out those British albums whenever I went to Camden Town or Oxford Street... these are all activities that I had long ceased to participate in by the time my second stint in Britain came to an end two years ago (although I do still have a look at that Observer list from time to time).

The way The Last Party talks about the music industry, it's clear that those dynamics were effectively still valid - guitar bands could still storm the charts, and it mattered when they released an album, rather than a bunch of singles. And it was possible for mainstream British culture (which I guess means white people) to coalesce around this shared musical heritage that drew on familiar sources like the Beatles and the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.

In fact, 2004 and 2005 were effectively the second wave of Britpop, when a bunch of bands (eg Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, the Futureheads) drew inspiration from the likes of Blur and Pulp to once again emphasize the importance of Britishness in their music.

Now it's hard to see anything like that happening again. I mentioned in that previous blog that most of those bands from 2004-05 failed to live up to early promise. At the same time, the indie network that made possible the rise from nowhere of Blur and Oasis is long gone - and nobody's willing to throw stupid money at guitar bands because there isn't any money left to throw.

What's equally disappointing is that even if such bands could break through, there are no places for someone like me to encounter them, at least here on the West Coast. I first heard Pulp's single Underwear on Live 105's Import Cafe, and sat wide-eyed watching MTV videos of Common People and Blur's Country House. Now Live 105's new music is all shoved into the Sunday evening ghetto, and MTV realized long ago that nobody watches music videos.

Britain is also, I think, a very different country than it was eleven years ago. Back then you could talk about Suede's inspirations, which were the crumbling parts of the country ignored by over a decade of Thatcherism, and people knew what you were talking about. Now Britain's back in the hands of the Tories, and will be for at least another five years, and those old politics are coming back. It may be more inclusive of people of color or of the LGBTQ community, but Maggie Thatcher's spiteful treatment of the poor is back with a vengeance, thanks to David Cameron and George Osborne's austerity politics.

The difference between now and the 80s, though, is that 30 years ago there was a welfare system that budding musicians could sign onto. Without glorifying dole culture, it is worth noting that a lot of the music that came out in the 90s had passed through life on welfare - these were effectively marginalized people. Now it's hard to see where the next Pulp or Oasis will come from - the next version of Blur should be okay, because they represented a very middle class type of Britishness that was the opposite, in many ways, of the bands from the north.

But who knows - maybe in a couple of years another Labour leader will come along who, like Tony Blair, headed up a band in college. And if he or she draws from this decade's dubstep, rather than guitar-based music, maybe it'll be the key to breaking British music out of its current doldrums.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Charleston: Take it Down

John Stewart may have gotten the most attention for his monologue the day of the shooting at AME Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this week, but his colleague Larry Wilmore, on the Nightly Show, had the best response:



Going straight after the limp-wristed and offensive coverage from Fox, in which they tried to spin it as an attack on Christians rather than on African-Americans, Wilmore put together a panel to try and make sense of the killer's motives and of why it seems to be so hard for the American right to take responsibility for its extremist wing.

The main thing, of course, is the fact that the Confederate Flag still flies over South Carolina and other parts of the South - the same flag (along with that of Rhodesia) that the shooter had sewn onto a jacket to show how serious he was about fomenting race war. A couple of Republican figures have come out and said the flag shouldn't fly over the state house - Mitt Romney, most notably, has been saying since 2008 that he doesn't recognize that flag. This is a nice step up from Jeb Bush, who called for it to be taken down but has hedged disgracefully about whether the shooting in Charleston counted as racially motivated.

Which is, of course, the point that nobody seems willing to acknowledge. In addition to the fact that it stands for racism and the degradation of an entire race - a degradation, moreover, that still echoes today, as we can tell from all the shootings of unarmed black men by police in the last year - that flag is a flag of treason. Most of the generals and politicians who supported the South during the Civil War were either executed as traitors or exiled, and the fact that it's inexplicably considered a cultural symbol should hold no water: just burn the fucking thing.

I'm reluctant to invoke Godwin's Law here, but no state in Germany is interested in flying the swastika, no matter how conservative they may be. There may be Germans who consider it a "cultural symbol", but those people are neo-Nazis, and are so far out of the mainstream discussion that they may as well not even exist.

So why do American Southerners cling to the Confederate flag, and why do the rest of us let them do it? You can bleat about states' rights all along, but the whole fucking point of the Civil War, beyond slavery, was that we aren't a collection of mini-nations with their own rules - there's a law of the land, which is applicable from Maine to Florida to California, and it trumps the laws of the states. To pretend otherwise is an insult to the nine victims at Emanuel Church, as well as to all the others who died trying to achieve civil rights throughout American history.

And it's not a free speech issue, either. There's a shibboleth among white right-wingers that minorities and the poor are only interested in having their rights recognized, and don't face up to their responsibilities. I'd like to submit that it's the most vocal members of the Tea Party and other hard-right groups who ignore their own responsibilities - in claiming that they aren't being heard, they forget that the speech they're trying to protect is in many cases hateful and degrading to other Americans. Nobody wants to hear that speech - and if they do, they're not the people you should be courting.

The first thing we learned in our media law class back in journalism school was that the First Amendment isn't an indiscriminate permission to say whatever you want. There are limits to what can be said, and we need to highlight these lines much better, because as long as the bloviating windbags of the hard-right continue to spew their hatred with impunity, the killing won't stop.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Champions League 2015: Cruel Old Game, Mk II

This year the Champions League final closed off the European football season, falling a bit later than usual. The competitors were Barcelona and Juventus (which happens to be my team), and it came out 3-1 to Barcelona, who were heavily favored to win it. 

The scoreline notwithstanding, it was an entertaining enough game - Barcelona scored with pretty much its first attack of the game, on 4 minutes, and this spurred Juve to mount attack after attack, until they finally drew level on 55 minutes. But of course, that woke up Barça, and they scored a further three (of which one was disallowed for coming off Neymar's hand rather than his head).

This is why I chose to reuse the title from last year's write-up. Then, it was cruel because Atletico Madrid had scored early and been in control for most of the game, only to concede at the last minute and go into extra time, which is when Real Madrid pulled out all the stops and won 4-1. This year, the cruelty comes from a slightly different source, namely the way that Juve had hopes of actually winning, only for those hopes to be dashed late on in the second half.

I'm fond of trotting out the old Yogi Berra adage, "That's why they play the games" when Italian teams are involved, typically because they're so easy to write off. The national team frequently starts tournaments off quite badly, but if they get to the knockout stages they always seem to beat Germany. At club level, Italy may have lost its fourth Champions League place to Germany, but Juve managed to hold on over two legs against Real Madrid, who've been having a stormer of a domestic season, with Cristiano Ronaldo keeping pace with Lionel Messi as they both break records left and right.

All of which is to say that while I expected Barcelona to win, I wasn't willing to rule Juve out completely. Which was probably why losing by that scoreline was so disappointing.

And now, the stats

There were some other good talking points from the match, of course. First is my annual (and somewhat desperate) search for patterns into whether a given country is dominating European football. Last year saw off my previous year's claim of Germany starting to come into its own; I was hesitant to claim an impending era of Spanish dominance, because I suggested that Barcelona was on the wane.

That was, of course, before Messi, Neymar and Suarez scored around 120 goals altogether this season. I should probably be more careful about making predictions like that, but where's the fun in that?

So yeah, roll on more Spanish teams to win the Champions League next year - Barça's losing two influential players in Xavi and Dani Alves, but that front line isn't going anywhere, since they're young and versatile (unless Suarez decides to go full Dracula again). And while it's likely that Ronaldo's going to slow down as he gets older, it's hard to see him falling so completely off the pace in the season to come - with an archenemy like Barcelona and Messi, I fully expect Ronaldo to keep banging them in, and possibly for Real to win La Liga.

I was, however, pretty accurate in my assessments of English chances in this year's tournament. None of the four teams made much of an impact, and Liverpool's exit in the group stage underlined how bad their season's been. I suspect Manchester United may do slightly better in the year to come, as Louis van Gaal seems to have spurred them on to greater things despite a pretty slow start to the season; along with Chelsea, I wouldn't be surprised if they got to the knockout stages, but I'm wondering if English teams have the skill (and more importantly, interest) in going much further next time.

On the question of Germany vs Italy, I don't think Serie A will be dislodging the Bundesliga from the Number 3 spot for a while. Sure, Juve got to the final, whereas Bayern only made it to the semis, and more German teams made it out of the group stage than Italian teams (in fact, Juve dispatched one of them on its way up). And equally, there were two Italian teams in the Europa League semi-finals, but neither made it all the way. Sevilla aside, I suspect it's hard to build dominance in that tournament, given that the Thursday games make it harder to recover for the weekends and the domestic leagues.

What would be fun is if some team from outside the top 4 countries made it through, but that probably won't happen again for a long time. In fact, it's been 11 years, when Porto beat Monaco. As I mentioned elsewhere, money has a gravitational pull, and as good as the second tier gets, they'll still always be feeder leagues for Spain, England and Germany - and this is likely to be Italy's fate for the next couple of years.

And the elephant in the room

Oh, and I might as well throw in some discussion of what's happening over at FIFA, right? It's certainly been a fun week - bunch of arrests, Sepp Blatter gets re-elected as president, then he resigns two days later when his aide Jerome Valcke gets caught pocketing $10 million or so.

My favorite aspect of this has been the role of the US in chasing these folks down. As a number of outlets have noted, the fact that the US doesn't care as much about soccer means its law enforcement officials don't have to worry about looking like spoilsports and can just throw everybody in jail. My only regret is that the Department of Justice hasn't been quite so dogged in its pursuit of corruption in the banking industry - maybe European authorities can return the favor by arresting everybody at Goldman Sachs?

Which isn't to trivialize the current investigation of FIFA, by the way. The Economist pointed out that corruption in sports isn't as benign as a lot of observers would like to have us believe - there are actual criminal networks involved, so cleaning up the sport will turn out to be worthwhile. If the US can, for example, clear out the match-fixing rings operating in Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia, then I think we can all agree it'll be a good thing.

But will anything change? I'm going for a cautious yes, simply because FIFA will now have to make decisions with the knowledge that the US is paying attention. Maybe it's too much to hope that World Cups won't come with such enormous price tags in the future, but at any rate cleaning up the sport may make it easier for countries that aren't kleptocracies to host the tournament.

And as far as Russia and Qatar hosting the next two World Cups, I hope both are stripped. Qatar's obvious, because it's roughly the size of a bathtub and has no soccer culture to speak of. The fact that it was even in the running to host a World Cup on its own should have been a red flag.

Russia's more difficult, but the fact is that, between their complete lack of cooperation in the investigation (hard drives conveniently wiped and documents conveniently being shredded) and the fact that they're throwing their weight around in an unseemly manner, they're not in any position to host an international tournament. And the fact that Putin's come out in support of Blatter should be a final indication that these people aren't to be trusted (if, y'know, invading neighbors and shooting down civilian passenger planes wasn't enough for you).

I just think it's a shame that it's taken this long for FIFA's sponsors to speak up. While some question the figure of 1,200 deaths among workers building stadia in Qatar, the fact that the debate has gotten to this level should have prompted some action from the likes of Visa and Coca-Cola long before now. Same with Russia's appalling record on human rights (particularly for journalists and the LGBTQ community) and its destabilization of Ukraine - it's hard to see how the sponsors were okay with that, but not with Sepp Blatter's worldwide bribe network.

Still, at least now the sponsors are involved, and that was the only thing that would make FIFA pay attention. It'll be interesting who comes in to replace Blatter, and whether they'll also be resigning in disgrace a few years from now.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Second Progress Report on the Novel: Life Gets in the Way

Hmm. Turns out I was a bit ambitious in the last post talking about this - instead of maintaining the average daily word count between 500-1,000 words, in May I dropped off a bit and stuck mainly around 500 words whenever I sat down to write. I also didn't replicate the 3-week streak I managed last month, although I did manage an 11-day streak, so I won't complain too much.

The more frustrating thing is that the story is starting to wind down toward the end, but I'm still barely halfway to the word count I'd set myself. This is less banal than it seems, since a lot of publishers have rather strict limits at around 80-90 thousand words, and I don't want to have to (eventually) shop around a novella - because does anybody even publish those anymore?

I have some thoughts for expanding the story, of course - certain characters that I've introduced who could have their roles fleshed out a bit more (I don't dare cut them at this point), and I might be able to add some more descriptions of people and places. If I do that, I'll have to make sure I don't waffle on too much, and that I do heed Elmore Leonard's advice to not write the boring parts that everybody skips over.

As far as why the word counts went down and the streaks got shorter, I'm trying to figure out what happened. Surely some of my other life stuff interfered, as there were a few nights that I was up in San Francisco for work or for fun, and my birthday was this month, too.

I also suspect that intensity is easy to maintain at the start of a long project, when you're excited about it, and at the end, when you're finally tying everything together again. Or to put it another way, I don't know if I like the second act as much as the first or third.

This doesn't refer specifically to my own work, by the way. I find that the start of a novel, movie or TV show always seems to grab me more, and then in Act 2 things settle down a bit until the end. I'm curious if this is down to attention spans, or the particular work I'm reading at the time. I know that in my case, there are some good set pieces in Act 2, but a lot of the other stuff has been glossed over quicker than I expected when I outlined the story; and there's also quite a lot of new stuff that wasn't in the outline (not that this is a problem, because I enjoyed writing it).

It's maybe a bit sad, but I think I'm going to have to refer back to Save the Cat to flesh stuff out. I do know of a couple of authors back in London who use it to make sure their stories are flowing well enough, so there is some applicability to novel-writing. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine George RR Martin needing to refer to Save the Cat for his own books.

Of course, he had to start somewhere, too...

Anyway, on to Month 3 and the end of the story. And I shouldn't stress too much anyway - this is the first/rough draft, so I won't have to worry about too much other stuff until I start on the revisions.

Just need to ignore Stephen King's advice that the second draft should always be 10% shorter than the first...