Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Out of Your Comfort Zone

One of the requirements of my job is that I interact with clients from time to time. Usually this takes the form of answering their questions about the data we sell them; every now and then they want to talk to us on the phone. I've also met them in meetings or at conferences, but that is, of course, not enough.

No, we're expected to give presentations at some point. That can be at conferences or in client meetings, but my card is marked: I will have occasion to stand in front of telecoms industry people and spout my ill-informed opinions at them. It has been decreed.

Frankly, this is the only way to get any sense out of me.

To that end, I spent the last two days in a training session designed to give me the knowledge and skills to do just that. When I signed up this summer, I was kind of dreading it, because (let's be honest) everybody is kind of expected to.

In the event, when I was able to break it down into specific and discrete techniques (eye contact with one person, deliver one thought to them and then move on, etc), it felt a lot more doable. It was still nerve-wracking to stand in front of strangers and hold forth about various topics, but not as bad as I'd thought (and clearly not as bad as some of the others on my course found it; one or two looked like they were ready to start crying). It also proves my suspicion about myself, that if I can break a task into its component parts, then I find it a lot easier.

But the most important thing I took from it came from something the instructor said on day one (yesterday). One of my colleagues was saying how the techniques felt strange or uncomfortable, and the instructor - a tiny French lady who reminded me of various language teachers I had in high school - said that of course the techniques would feel strange, because we've never used them before. The implication being that it isn't a bad thing to get out of your comfort zone from time to time.

I've been thinking about this idea a lot recently, because it applies to my life in two specific areas, and because I've heard the same advice with regard to at least one of these areas. The areas I'm talking about, incidentally, are dating and health.

My main problem with dating is the same as almost everyone else's, namely that I'm not doing enough of it. I've done some reading on non-creepy and non-assholish ways to increase the number of dates that I go on, and done a lot of thinking about more ways to meet women. At the same time, intriguingly, ITV here in the UK has been showing the 40-Year-Old Virgin a lot in recent months; apart from being a really funny movie, it also dovetails nicely with a lot of the stuff I've been thinking about lately.

What a champ.

Its relevance for our purposes, incidentally, is when Andy (Steve Carell) complains that all of the stuff his friends are telling him don't feel right, and Jay (Romany Malco) answers that these things don't feel right because what he is comfortable with hasn't been working. If we ignore for a second that a lot of Jay's advice is pretty terrible, not to say misogynistic, that one insight is spot-on.

When I was training for my marathon, I started having serious pains in my knees, to the point where I wouldn't be able to walk for a couple of days afterward (which is pretty terrible, when you consider I was only running for an hour at a time). When I told my trainer, she looked at my posture and immediately zeroed in on how I stand with my feet turned outward. She suggested I walk with my feet pointing straight, and in the first few weeks of this I kept thinking about that line from the movie: Walking this way feels weird, but it only feels weird because they way I've been walking up until now was wrong.

In any event, changing the way I walk and stretching those muscles helped a lot, to the point where my knees were actually fine after I ran the marathon; the worst-hit parts of my body were my lower back and my leg muscles.

So, to wrap up a long and rambling set of insights, I've been thinking a lot about this business of getting out of your comfort zone. It seems like a lot of people are unwilling to do it (me included), and it feels like there are people out there who are happy to encourage you to stay within your comfort zone. Stick with what you know, right?

But all the reading I'm doing, and all the advice I'm hearing, says the opposite. And when you think about it, it should be obvious that trying new things, that make you uncomfortable, is how you grow as a person. Maybe not everybody sees it that way, but I'm increasingly convinced it's the only way to go.

Which means, I guess, that it's time to hit the singles bars. Who's up for it?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Dude, spoiler!

It's funny how often that phrase gets thrown around these days.

I was reading the AV Club this morning before heading to work, and clicked on the review for Joe Abercrombie's new book, Red Country (which - spoiler alert - I'm likely to be getting for Christmas). So far, so good - the reviewer seemed to like what Abercrombie was doing, but then he revealed the true identity of one of the characters; a pretty big reveal.

It kind of bothered me. I've been wondering what happened to this character for a while, so it's a little disappointing to have the twist revealed so blithely. I tried to rationalize it away, thinking maybe it's dealt with early on, but even then it's not cool - wherever the reveal falls in the novel, now I'm going to be looking for it and waiting it, rather than trundling along and letting it hit me.

But this post isn't so much about that, as about the whole spoiler "thing" that's going on in the culture right now. Everybody reacts differently, from the people who don't seem to care to the people who refuse to listen to conversations about Argo because they don't want to know what happens at the end (seriously: I haven't even seen it and I know how the Iranian hostage crisis turned out, if not the whole business about a fake movie; but a coworker insisted on not hearing even that spoiler).

I'd say there are two factors leading to this rise of "dude, spoiler!" that I'm talking about. One is the increase in heavily serialized entertainment (eg Lost), and the other is the increase in conversation about this entertainment on the internet. Wander into the wrong corner of the internet, and you'll find out what happened on the island, who lives or dies in the Walking Dead, or who got elected president at the end of the West Wing.

This comes up quite often, unsurprisingly, on the Nerdist podcasts. Chris Hardwick and the gang have chatted to JJ Abrams, Robert Kirkman, Damon Lindelof and loads of others involved in these big "now" shows, so inevitably things slip out. I've basically stopped listening to podcasts involving the Walking Dead, so that I can eventually watch the show in peace; same with Lost and Mad Men.

So what's the etiquette? I think Chris Hardwick has it mostly right - Lost has been off the air for years, so someone (like me) who hasn't seen it all yet has to take the responsibility in avoiding spoilers. On the other hand, with reviews of movies or books, it's best if the writer signposts that he or she will be revealing key plot points, because the assumption is that people haven't yet seen or read the item in question.

I got some disbelieving looks in the office when I objected to my coworkers spoiling parts of the new Bond film, Skyfall, only a week after it was released. But not everybody can get to the theater at the same time, as I pointed out (we've compromised on Homeland: whenever they start talking about that show I go and hide out in the kitchen or something). In any case, Skyfall was ruined for me even more by being boring and not very well written, so I can't really hold it against the folks in the office.

So when's it acceptable to reveal a plot point? Ie, in what cases, and at what remove from the movie or book's release?

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

David Allen tells Google how to Get Things Done

Here's a neat video I found the other day, while I was avoiding doing all the things I feel I ought to be doing:

This is one of the books I've been using this year to prioritize and organize, and at some point I'd like to write a blog about all that stuff, but for now, here's the man himself.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

This weekend, I completed the Luton Marathon. It took me nearly five hours, because I may not have trained as well as I could have, or carb-loaded as well as I could have; but I finished it, and thereby crossed off one of my goals for the year.

I can definitely call it an interesting experience. Up until now I've generally participated in larger-scale (if distinctly shorter) runs - I believe there were about 2800 places or so, in comparison with the tens of thousands who run the Reading Half-Marathon or the London Marathon. On the positive side, this meant there weren't the gigantic throngs that characterize those other events; on the negative side, it also meant that the organizers weren't able to get the roads closed throughout the course, so as the day wore on I found myself increasingly in the company of motor vehicles.

And it was a day-long affair - as I said, I took nearly five hours, which means I started running at about 10am and finally dragged myself across the finish line at almost 3pm. It's difficult to express the time it took, although for the sake of comparison I'll note that when I took the train to Edinburgh earlier this year that trip took less time than my run. As the shadows lengthened, I found myself worrying that I might still be running after dark.

That wouldn't have happened, as it turned out, because there was a strict time limit of five hours, but I'll admit I wasn't at my most rational after around 4 hours of constant motion.

My fellow runners presented an interesting case study too. On shorter runs I've felt a nice vibe, of a bunch of people all working toward the same goal, with a refreshing lack of aggro (refreshing in the context of how much aggro you get on a daily basis in London, that is). But I sense that marathon runners are a breed apart; whereas my various half-marathons have featured the odd nod or encouraging shoulder-tap, I actually got chatting with people during the run.

One guy was doing it for the first time (like me), though he lived right on the course and had participated in the relay in previous years. Another gentleman, who'd hurt his knee somewhere in Lap 3, told me he'd participated the previous year; for the rest of the day we passed each other here and there, always with a word of encouragement, and we greeted each other like veterans after we finished.

My favorite, though, has to be the Slovakian guy I was running alongside for the last mile or so, whose stop-start tactic was even more dramatic than mine. Whereas I was reduced, by that time, to walking for one minute and running for five, he'd take off at top speed for about thirty seconds at a stretch, stop and stretch his hamstrings (giving me enough time to catch up), then dash off again. When I asked him what he was doing he explained that he couldn't run slowly. In any case, he eventually outpaced me and disappeared around a corner, not to be seen again until we were retrieving our backpacks after the race.

Most impressive were the folks bearing T-shirts with the insignia of the 100 Marathon Club, none of whom were younger than about 60. Somewhere in the first half of the race I overheard someone asking one of these 100-marathon guys how many he'd participated in, and the old fellow answered something on the order of 470 marathons.

On the train home another runner (who'd clocked up her 60th) said that she'd been chatting to them as well, and one of these folks had participated in 37 marathons this year alone. My interlocutor shrugged and pointed out that if you're running a marathon every week, you don't need to do anymore training. Fair point.

Incidentally, I also got passed by one of these grey panthers as I was struggling through the third lap. A little old lady trundled past me and blared something cheerful and encouraging at me, thereby fulfilling what appears to be a rule of marathon running - that you must get overtaken at least once by an old person.

So two days later, I'm still sore from my calves to my shoulders, I have a twinge in my right knee that leaves me alternately gasping and cursing, and I'm secretly afraid that the nails on both big toes are getting ready to fall off. But I certainly feel proud of myself, for having signed up, trained and kept going until the end - I was tempted at so many points to give up and ask to go home, but the only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that I'd have to do it again.

Of course, if I do sign up for another, it'll now be with the knowledge that I can complete a full marathon without dropping dead three hours in. But, unlike those old folks from the 100 Marathon Club, I won't be doing it next weekend.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Future of the Left

I've had a week to digest the results of the election, so I thought it was time to look at some of the implications of the result, and think about where Barack Obama should go next. Obviously, this is influenced by my own political preferences, so the below may not play well in Alabama or Texas.

Divided by a common language

I think the first point is the rash of petitions to secede from the Union, which apparently are an inevitable consequence of presidential elections. Obviously none of these petitions is serious, but it kind of points up how certain people feel there's a gulf between themselves and their fellow Americans. More than reaching across the aisle to congressional Republicans, the Obama administration should be finding some way to show the electorate that it's a government representing the interests of all 50 states. I'd like to suggest breaking up the banks, to avoid another instance of "too big to fail", but I know that would be greeted by shrieks of socialism.

Sit down, shut up, and hold on

That said, it would be nice if the administration didn't worry unduly about the complaints of right-wing crackpots. I'm perhaps overly fond of quoting the West Wing, but a paraphrasing of what Leo McGarry said once is apposite here: They need to understand that they lost the election, so it's time to sit down and shut up for a couple of years.

I'm aware things aren't quite so simple. However, a great many Republican politicians are simply not serious (by contrast, the only non-serious Democrat I can name is Dennis Kucinich, and he's not that bad); this hasn't changed since President Obama's first term, when he perhaps attempted too hard to reach across the aisle. If only one thing marks the president's second term, it should be reform of the Senate filibuster, so that a lawmaker who wants to derail a piece of legislation actually has to stand up and talk for as long as he or she can. This will cut across party lines, so let's get it done.

Is this rash getting bigger?

A second term for President Obama means an extra four years or so for the healthcare reform to settle and for Americans to see the benefits. The most important thing the President can do in this regard is take to the road and explain to the electorate how exactly it benefits them. I've been saying for years that he should have presented it as a bailout for regular people by making sure that they won't go broke paying for medical care; this is his chance to do so.

On a more philosophical note, why are certain parts of the healthcare law so controversial? I understand conservative unease over provisions requiring people to have health insurance, but why are they in such a hurry to let insurance companies get away with dropping customers - who've been paying for their insurance - the minute these customers get sick? Frankly, that should have been illegal from the start.

Here be socialists

Speaking of things that right-wingers deem socialistic, it'd be nice for American foreign policy to improve, and maybe become a little more European. Not much, though - I think that NATO serves a valuable role, and that Europe needs to take a more active role in combat operations, where they're needed. I support the idea of America policing the world insofar as it's policing things that can lead to international instability; however, that means the rest of the world should be helping with the policing. Whoever heads up the State Department for the next few years should be sent out to ensure that allies in Europe and elsewhere are pulling their weight.

That said, we need to be pushing our own weight around a lot less, notably in Afghanistan. Some on the right claim that we'd lose face if we pulled out of Afghanistan now, but the way I see it, the longer we stay there the worse we look. Hamid Karzai is already making the Western powers look like fools, corruption is rampant and the Taliban always seem to be on the rise again. Pulling out now might scare Karzai straight; if not, we really shouldn't be trying to impose government on Afghanistan without knowing anything about the place. The British tried it, the Soviets tried it, and we really ought to be learning from their mistakes.

And the last point I want to make on foreign policy is this: we need to stop with the drone strikes in sovereign nations. It's nice to think that we can take out the "bad guys" with the push of a button, like in a videogame, but in reality I don't believe this can be squared with international law or ethical conduct. And not to be alarmist, but where does it end? With drone strikes on US soil? No thanks.

Will blog for food

I read a story a few months ago in which President Obama apparently asked Steve Jobs what it would take to build the iPhone in America. Jobs's response was that those jobs weren't coming back.

With all due respect, that's not good enough, and it's pretty short-sighted. If there are actually ways to build iPhones or other electronics at a reasonable cost in the US, we should be looking at them. The age of low-skill, high-wage jobs may be over, but there is still demand for machinists and other assembly-line jobs; and more to the point, we can't all be either investment bankers or retail clerks. And maybe entitlements like Medicare or Social Security wouldn't be in such trouble if more people were earning enough to pay into them. Just a thought.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Grizzly Bear: Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Because of the company I keep, I typically find myself going to see Grizzly Bear live whenever they're in London. So it was last week, when the band was in town promoting its latest album, Shields. Ahead of the concert I duly bought the album and listened to it, so that on the big day I was ready to hear them play the material live. I'd formed some impressions and opinions, and armed with these I trooped into the Brixton Academy to see if the band would live up to expectations. But to be charitable, I ended the evening kind of pissed off.

I'd seen the band twice before, and found them generally inoffensive, even enjoyable in parts. That said, they aren't one of those bands that works the crowd, gets people dancing and singing along, and all that jazz. It's just, on this occasion, I really couldn't build up even the connection I've had when listening to them on drives through places like Big Sur.

Listening on, I kept thinking about all the things I've heard or read about them - one music site suggests that their material is not so much written as "composed" - implying that they've got less in common with other rock bands and more with the likes of Mozart, Steve Reich or whoever.

For me, Grizzly Bear symbolizes this tendency that people have of separating passion from virtuosity. We're at a place, culturally, where what everyone seems to value in music is how passionately an artist plays, regardless of how good they are. In fact, it seems that for most music fans, at least in London, actually knowing how to play an instrument is a sign that you've left behind the ideals of punk or whatever. Naturally, there are fans who go in the other direction, preferring the chin-stroking kind of music to anything loud or brash or danceable.

Both groups are more similar than they'd like to admit, especially because they're both constantly in search of that one obscure band that one-ups whatever all their friends are listening. Finnish noise-rock? Check. A punk band composed entirely of twelve-year-olds who've never picked up an instrument before? Check.

So where does Grizzly Bear fit into this? I'd put them into the latter camp, if for no other reason than that don't seem to be interested in building any sort of rapport with the audience. Listening to them last week, I felt like they'd have been just as happy playing in an empty auditorium - their music doesn't invite any sort of participation. And, paradoxically, the audience seemed happy to leave them to it - apart from one cracked-out girl who was dancing up a storm in front of me, the most movement I saw in the crowd was a bit of head-bobbing here and there.

I guess what I'm getting at here is, can't we have good musicians who also make you want to sing along? The guys in Grizzly Bear are meant to have been music students once - I don't doubt that they're better musicians than I ever will be, but the comment above about their music being "composed" shows that the writer really doesn't know anything about contemporary (ie modern classical) music.

There's a place for both cerebral music and ballsy music. But by not engaging the listener, Grizzly Bear isn't either.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

The New 30

Back to the Future is on TV this evening, which is appropriate because I've been thinking about it recently. Not so much the actual film (although I always have time for it and its sequel), but more the fact that 30 years doesn't seem such a long time anymore.

There's always a lot of talk about how 40 is the new 30, but it usually means that people are doing things at the age of 40 that previous generations did at the age of 30. I think, though, that 40 is also the new 30 in entertainment, specifically in time travel stories and in flashbacks.

I remember noticing this for the first time when I was watching Battlestar Galactica: Razor, which has flashbacks to the Cylon War four decades previous. At first that struck me as a gigantic span of time - how old was Bill Adama anyway? But then I did the math, and figured if he was flying against the Cylons in his 20s, and running away from them in his 60s, then it made sense.

What'd you say about running away, punk?

Contrast this with Back to the Future - if you wanted a time to contrast with 1985, then 1955 was a pretty good bet. For one thing it felt properly remote, but not so much so that Marty's parents would be too young - or, in the 1985 portions of the movie, too old. And frankly, 30 years was pretty much all the parents were rated for - back in the 80s a person in their 60s clearly had one foot in the grave. Whereas now, someone in their 60s can reasonably look forward to about 20 or 30 more years of rollerblading and managing their diabetes (which is what old folks get up to, if TV commercials are to be believed).

"Time to plan my retirement, then roller-blading 'til I drop!"

If you need another example, Men in Black 3 does go back in time less than 40 years (back to 1969, to be precise), but I think it still contributes to my thesis. Going back exactly 30 years would have taken Will Smith's character back to 1972, and the 1970s have a different feel to them, in the movies at least, than the 1960s.

I'm sure there are further examples and counter-examples, enough so that we could sit here and argue about it until Nike releases those self-tying shoes and our bosses can fire us by fax. But I think it's interesting how entertainment is adjusting to demographic shifts in longevity.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Frad Lab World Tour 2012: Maxing Out the Credit Cards in Hong Kong

Ever since I went to Thailand two years ago, I’ve been obsessing over getting back to Asia. It seems a little trite to say it, but it’s a completely different world, one that exists in parallel to the English-speaking world. It’s very easy, living in the UK or the US or wherever, to assume that what’s important to us is just as important to the rest of the world. In the UK, you don’t need to go so far to find places where that isn’t strictly true, but at the same time, Germany, Italy and France get much of the same stuff as we do.

So my first experience of Asia was a revelation; given that Phuket is right next to Malaysia and Singapore, it was full of Malays, Chinese, Indians, all speaking English to one another but completely unaffected by the world I know. I knew I was going to have to find a way to get back, and see more of it.

My stop in Hong Kong was not part of my original plans, though. At about the start of 2012 I decided this would be the year I finally visited Australia. I made sure to broadcast this fact to as many people as possible – like when setting a fitness goal, I wanted to be accountable to as many people as possible, so I’d actually go through with it.

One of the people I broadcast this plan to was a friend who, as it happened, was about to move to Hong Kong for work. She duly suggested that I make a stop over on my way, and further shamed me into action by saying that my initial tone indicated I wasn’t going to. And to be honest, I’m glad she did.

The first thing to say about Hong Kong – which is to say, the first thing I noticed – was how familiar it looked. Walking around the city that first morning, it felt like I’d crossed the world only to land back in San Francisco; but a San Francisco that consists only of Chinatown. Sparkling new high-rises stand interspersed with slightly more run-down apartment buildings, and the corners are garnished with tropical plants or little street markets. It was alien but familiar at the same time.

The next thing I learned, once I actually started going into the buildings, was that there are malls everywhere in the city. On my first day in the city, because I had around 12 hours before I could meet my friend, I must have visited half a dozen of them, all in an attempt to stay awake or, alternately, to find someplace where I could take a discreet nap.

Hong Kong’s malls shouldn’t have been so surprising to me, but I guess I never really thought about it until then; I’d known since childhood that you could find all kinds of crazy stuff in Hong Kong, from toys to electronics, but somehow I’d never have expected it to look so much like Southern California.

Of course, all the malls make sense when you realize how swelteringly hot it is in Hong Kong; you find yourself sweating profusely the minute you step out of one of the buildings, and the air is about as thick as clam chowder. I was told that Hong Kong’s social life effectively revolves around the malls, and to be honest, I can see why.

That said, the malls are also there for the mainland Chinese, who occupy a strange, kind of derided place in Hong Kongers’ mental landscape. According to my friend, the stores don’t list prices on the sale items because the shoppers from mainland China just sweep everything up.

You sort of get the sense, talking to Hong Kongers, that they regard the rest of China as the great unwashed; when I suggested that this trip was technically my first taste of China, someone else snorted with derision and said, “This isn’t China.”

That may be true; but it’s certainly much more China than anywhere else I’ve been. And my friend pointed out, rebutting her friends’ claims that Hong Kong is incredibly diverse, that 95% of the population is Chinese, and 95% of them are Cantonese.

Official culture also regards Hong Kong as part of China, at least if museums are anything to go by. I was told the terracotta warriors were on display somewhere, though I didn’t manage to find them; but I did get to the Museum of Art, which featured an exhibition on the Qing Qianlong Emperor, in among the usual traditional Chinese art.

Whichever you agree with, in any case, it’s always clear that you’re in Asia. This is most apparent on the giant escalator that takes you from Central, by the harbor, up almost to the Peak. Trundling up or down with the commuters (it goes down in the morning and up for the rest of the day), you’re presented with a shifting panorama of traditional Chinese pharmacies, Korean photographers, Chinese curio shops, and the kinds of open-faced dive bars that look like something out of Patong, in Phuket.

So to sum up, I think I successfully got my Asia fix for the year from my three days in Hong Kong. Just have to figure out when I can get back. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Plea for Civility in Aircraft Design

Travelling abroad is naturally an occasion to learn new things, experience new cultures and breathe new air, but more prosaically it is also an opportunity to evaluate a new airline (even if this evaluation is based on the rather limited view from the economy seats). I generally clock enough long-haul miles at Christmas that I feel like I've figured out how best to ensconce myself in my little cocoon for about ten hours at a time; flying on new airlines forces me to modify my tactics.

Before I go any farther, I'll point out the obvious, if glossed-over, fact: every airline's economy section is pretty much the same. Tiny seats, no legroom, and the undying hatred of the airline staff if you go off-script in any way. The food is typically uninspiring and the cutlery is plastic, which is undoubtedly to reduce the plane's weight, but also reminds the passenger that he is no more than one of the Great Unwashed. The Communist Manifesto starts to make sense when you travel economy.

That said, there are a couple of differences between airlines. These generally relate to the overall design of a plane, and can be navigated with the use of sites like Others relate to the kind of food you get on board - Thai Airways always has a delicious Thai dish on offer, while Cathay Pacific actually gives you a third option beyond "beef or chicken", namely some form of noodles. And if you're really unlucky, you might find yourself on a long-haul flight without a personal video screen, forced to die a little inside as everyone else in your row laughs at Marmaduke (this actually happened).

But, pace Slate's Witold Rybczynski, there really is more to say about seat design in economy than packing folks in as closely as possible. For example, given that the personal video screen is pretty much ubiquitous now (other than on Thai Airways), it leads to questions about where to put the controls for the damn thing. Does it go in the seat-back, under the screen? Or do you put it somewhere in the armrest?

Cathay, I learned in the last couple of weeks, goes for the former, while Virgin and British Airways prefer different versions of the latter. BA puts them on top of the armrest, where a clumsy elbow can change the channel or knock the volume to ear-splitting levels; Virgin, by contrast, goes for the inside of the armrest, which effectively limits your range of movement even further, if such a thing is possible. Over the last few Christmases I've innocently shifted in my seat only to drive the volume up way past tolerable.

There's also the seat pocket in front of you, where the in-flight magazine and air-sickness bags live. Cathay prefers plastic seat-backs (I guess because they really do think we're animals?), so this takes the form of a bulging piece of netting that fails in accommodating the book you've brought on board, while also, paradoxically, taking away leg space and making it even more awkward to try getting in or out of your seat for those leg-stretching breaks you really need to be taking.

I could go on, but these are the most egregious examples. The point, as every good architect knows, is that form follows function: Richard Branson or Willie Walsh or whoever runs Cathay doesn't give a flying shit (pun intended) about economy travellers' comfort, but it would be nice if whoever designed the interiors of the plane ever had to actually sit in the seats they've devised.

Or to put it another way, just look at Ryanair: the seats don't move, the legroom is negligible and the seat-backs are plastic; but paradoxically, it feels more comfortable, because you don't have the seat pocket or the screen controls cluttering up your personal space. It's no better or worse than a bus.

Which isn't to say that the long-haul carriers should emulate Ryanair; Michael O'Leary clearly has nothing but contempt for his customers. But Virgin, BA and the rest should remember that they aren't running a bus service. A thoughtfully designed economy section would win them more repeat business.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Lost in the shuffle

I was in a bookstore today, looking through the travel writing section and fuming at the way the books were organized. I've read a few books recently about Germany and Switzerland, and I was looking for more in this vein, but the shelves were laid out alphabetically by author, rather than by region or country. The upshot is, I scanned the entire set of shelves and came up with absolutely nothing. Which is probably for the best, because I shouldn't be adding to my book collection (just the opposite), but it got me thinking about how people browse.

The way the publishing business is going, bookstores would probably prefer that you go straight to the name authors, buy a book (or several), and go. But one of the great advantages bookstores have traditionally had over Amazon is in the browsing - where you go with a vague idea of what you want, you look through the shelves, find it, but then hang on, this looks interesting - oh, and I'd better pick this one up, too...

I know that Amazon offers suggestions for similar books, but the two books I searched for online just now - Germania by Simon Winder and Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes - only pulled up results with the exact same subject matter (and incidentally, books I already own). When I tried adding other criteria, namely travel writing and European history, I promptly found myself staring at a list of Fifty Shades of Grey books and copycats.

So Amazon's algorithm isn't quite flawless, and it's possible what I'm looking for doesn't exist. But this also proves how important it is for bookstores to shelve their stock intelligently - you'd be pretty disappointed if you ventured into the history section at your local Barnes & Noble or Waterstone's and found poorly written erotic fiction all over the place.

Of course, matters aren't helped by established authors suggesting that different genres should be shelved together. Their thinking is that by placing science fiction and fantasy on a different shelf (typically at the back of the store, well away from sunlight), you reinforce the stereotype that only pasty virgins read that stuff. The solution, therefore, is to just stock all fiction together, so that folks who don't normally read in that genre can be enticed over to the dark side. George RR Martin, I believe, is one proponent of this idea, wistfully recalling his youthful days of perusing spinner racks filled with paperback SF, fantasy, westerns, thrillers, etc.

With all respect to the man who's sold millions of books and been proclaimed the American Tolkien by Time's Lev Grossman, not so fast. Spinner racks aside (I like the idea of those), these supporters of breaking down the genre walls are perhaps forgetting that no matter how visible their own books get, they'll always get shunted off the shelves in favor of the latest claptrap from Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen. Think of all the places where you saw reviews or discussions of Freedom, when it came out; now think of all the places where you saw people talking about A Dance with Dragons. Much as we in the genre would like to think otherwise, SF/F isn't really taken all that seriously by Muggles (sorry, couldn't resist).

Personally, though? I don't see this as a problem. Science fiction and fantasy is just as prone to Sturgeon's Law as any other genre, but at least it typically doesn't get writers trying to show off what they learned in their fancy creative writing MFA course.

On a more practical level, the genre ghetto should stand simply to allow new entrants to find more of what they're looking for. If you want to get people to read more SF/F, you put Tad Williams next to Connie Willis, not Irvine Welsh; just like if you want people to read more stuff like Trainspotting, you put it among similar books by similar authors.

So let's keep the science fiction and fantasy clear of the horror books, and the mysteries, and the literary fiction. Not because it's less worthy, but because you don't want to get PD James mixed up with EL James...

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

I'm old enough to remember the previous series of Batman films, the ones that began so promisingly, helmed by Tim Burton, and ended so badly under the supervision of Joel Schumacher. With that disaster in mind, I was eager to see what Christopher Nolan would do with the character when he rebooted it for Batman Begins. When that turned out all right, if not stellar, I was eager to see how Heath Ledger would play the Joker for the follow-up, The Dark Knight. And that, perhaps, set my expectations a little high for the last of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

Let's be clear - it's still a better summer blockbuster than most, and it ties up the threads from the previous films in a pretty satisfactory manner. Yet as I watched it, I couldn't help thinking of a quote from the Dark Knight: You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Again, this might be a little unfair, in part because the Dark Knight was impossible to properly follow up, what with Heath Ledger's death. But the Dark Knight Rises is ultimately an unsatisfying film.

Spoilers up ahead - proceed with caution

Part of the problem is that very little in it is surprising. From the start, you're fed the idea that it's all building to an ending of some kind. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears on screen, for example, you know he's going to end up replacing someone, whether it's Batman or Commissioner Gordon. And Morgan Freeman's comment about the Bat's faulty autopilot also raised some red flags.

The other side of this whole "unsurprising" business is that the trailers kind of ruined the big set piece, in which Gotham's football stadium blows up mid-game. This is something I've been noticing more recently - the other big offender this summer was Prometheus - and it's a little annoying. One of the things that made me sit up and gasp in the Dark Knight was the scene where Batman flips the Joker's big rig right in the middle of downtown Gotham. There were shots of this in the trailers for that film, but somehow it still worked; on the other hand, the stadium sequence appeared in its entirety in the trailers, so that when I saw the film, I was left with a feeling of, "That's it?"

I think the other thing this new movie was missing was a sense of expansiveness, for lack of a better word. The Dark Knight began with the Joker's bank robbery, which gave us establishing shots of an entire city. Somehow, the Dark Knight Rises manages to feel constricted, so that you don't get a sense of a wider world beyond the caves, and the alleys, and the tunnels. Some commenters have complained about the second film's pacing, but my feeling was that it added to the sense of chaos the Joker created, and the wider city made for a perfect canvas.

And probably the biggest thing going against the Dark Knight Rises is the villain. Part of this is unavoidable, given that Heath Ledger's Joker was always going to be a hard act to follow; but after that mesmerizing, unhinged performance, Bane just didn't seem very interesting. It didn't help that his big plan was to bring down Western civilization by nuking Gotham; this was one of the weaker aspects of Batman Begins, and I was disappointed to see it resurface here. But as a character, Tom Hardy's Bane ends up just being a big dude who walks around pretending to wear suspenders; if anyone should have been given the Joker's motivation of wanting to watch the world burn, it was Bane (I read the comics, and frankly I'm still in the dark as to the original character's motivation).

On the other hand, there were a few good points. For one thing, the performances were pretty good overall - special mention goes to Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. Not so much for what she does in the film - ooh, she's bad! Now she's feeling bad about selling out Batman! What next? - but the way she inhabits the character from the first moment you see her. The look on her face when Bruce Wayne notices she's taken his mother's necklace is priceless, and in other points I was struck by her poise; physically inhabiting a character is, of course, part of what makes a role so believable, and I think she pulled it off well.

Among the other supporting characters, Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were well-cast as Commissioner Gordon and rookie cop John Blake. Oldman's another actor who inhabits his roles so well that he disappears into them (I call it the Harrison Ford test), and he's been consistently good as Gordon throughout the trilogy. Gordon-Levitt also has this quality in this movie, and I kind of liked how his arc in this film mirrored Oldman's in the previous two (although I'm not sure about the GCPD's practice of battlefield promotions, to be honest). The only thing that bothered me was how easily Blake deduced that Bruce Wayne was Batman - if a simple beat cop could do it, why not Gordon, who's been around Wayne for years? (I'm aware there's a suggestion that Gordon does know, but it still bothered me).

I also liked the twist toward the end, where Marion Cotillard's character is revealed to be Ra's al-Ghul's daughter Talia. Part of this was fanboy-ism, because Talia's always been a big part of the Ra's al-Ghul stories in the comics, but it was also good to see something in the story that was more than met the eye (one of my big complaints with Inception). And from a continuing fanboy perspective, the image of Bane lifting Batman over his head and then breaking his back like a twig was well-done, just as it was in the comics.

So there you go: in terms of quality, The Dark Knight Rises is probably level on quality with Batman Begins. This makes it a flawed film, but an OK one, and certainly one I'd rather see again than Cosmopolis (yeah, that's directed at David Cronenberg's comments about superhero films).

Final score: 3/5

Friday, 17 August 2012

Avoid cliches like the plague

Cliches - everyone says to avoid them. So much so that it's kind of become a cliche itself. For example, I read an article on the web the other day talking about how to be an effective manager; one of its suggestions was to surround yourself with talented people, which the author admitted was something of a cliche, but noted that it's a cliche because it's true.

That got me thinking about why exactly cliches are bad, and the answer I've come to is that they let you turn off your brain while writing.

I think the best explanation for this is George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language. In this essay, Orwell sets out a number of rules for avoiding bad or lazy writing, the first of which is, "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print."

This is particularly important in fiction writing, and even more important in writing genre fiction, where the narrative can sometimes become so stylized that it's easy to resort to cliches to transmit your ideas. For instance, it's almost de rigueur  in fantasy for the protagonist to be a kitchen boy or a farm boy, or someone generally unassuming who is eventually revealed to be the heir to an ancient throne and the only one who can wield the magic sword.

These cliches are so deeply embedded in our thinking that even Tolkien felt the need to subvert certain of them in the Lord of the Rings - which is ironic, considering how many conventions of the fantasy genre he gave rise to. On the other hand, some authors make great efforts to avoid cliches, but even this avoidance can quickly become a cliche itself.

But to get back to the real meaning of Orwell's first rule, it's worth emphasizing that he's talking about cliches in prose, rather than narrative. Think of a sunset - specifically, think of all the descriptions of sunsets you've read in books and short stories over the years. It could be "dawn's rosy fingers" or a "fiery disc dipping below the horizon" or anything like that. But after the first time somebody wrote those down, every writer who used those was essentially writing in shorthand, rather than finding their own expressions.

Two authors that do a good job, in my opinion, of writing innovative prose, are Bill Bryson and Daniel Abraham. In his first travel book, The Lost Continent, Bryson describes driving down a country road and seeing a pickup in the distance being chased by a cloud of dust; it might not be F Scott Fitzgerald, but I remember reading it a couple of years ago and being struck by the vividness of the image.

I have a similar example for Daniel Abraham, from Darker Angels, which he wrote under the name MLN Hanover - one of the characters is described as sucking his drink through his teeth, which evoked the character's state of mind (ie, he was really pissed off and trying not to show it). Abraham could have said something like, "He drained his beer with an angry look on his face" but that lacks energy - and anybody could have come up with it.

So there are some of the benefits of keeping cliches in your prose to a minimum: a description that belongs to you shows up more vividly than one the readers seen millions of times before; or it can help you express more than what the words on the page mean on their own. And more importantly, it makes the language yours. And all you need to do is keep your own brain engaged - because that'll keep your readers interested too.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Hunger Games

It's probably a truism to say that books for children or young adults have become big business. Whatever you think of them, Harry Potter and Twilight have sold millions of copies, spawned successful movie franchises and, in the case of Twilight, spun off a whole subset of literature for teenagers. What's interesting is that these series seem to come out of nowhere, with big, rabid fanbases and a lot of the books already published (although this blindsiding probably shows how out-of-the-loop I am).

The Hunger Games is another one of these types of books - I first heard about it last year, presumably because they were gearing up for the release of the movie this year. And now that I've read it, it feels like I'm seeing all the grown-ups reading it on the Tube, much as they were all reading Harry Potter ten years ago (same as me, I should add).

So, curious, I managed to get my hands on the first book, and essentially devoured it in the course of a week. Part of the reason for that is the simplicity of the prose, but I feel that simplicity helps to obscure the themes Suzanne Collins is writing about; reality TV, violence in the media, all that good stuff. In his review at the Wertzone, Adam likens it to Battle Royale, and while I was certainly aware of the similarities as I was reading the Hunger Games, I think the two stories are working off different themes.

(FYI, this post will have some spoilers, so if you intend to read the book I'd suggest you stop reading here)

I tend to take at face value Suzanne Collins' statement that she got the idea for the story when channel surfing between Iraq War footage and a reality TV show. As a result, I don't see the Hunger Games as being about the teenage years being some kind of battlefield, which is the theme of Battle Royale. There's certainly some aspect of that, but the sources Collins draws on, such as the tributes to King Minos of Crete and Ancient Roman gladiatorial games, suggest to me that her real preoccupation here is the media, and how our demands for entertainment are becoming ever more extreme.

Overall I think it works, though sometimes it gets a little obvious, especially when she starts throwing about Roman names (Cinna, Cato, Claudius, etc) for characters from the Capitol or from richer districts.  One aspect I enjoyed about the book was the preoccupation with manipulating the Tributes' image to make them appeal to the masses; I was particularly interested with how the main character, Katniss, was expected to be sexualized beyond her age of sixteen years, including by playing up a romance with the Tribute from her own district, Peeta.

As far as characterization, Katniss is a good, strong character, portrayed from the start as someone who's adapted to her harsh surroundings and is determined to survive to return to her family. Suzanne Collins maintains this portrayal throughout, even when Katniss is thrust into the Hunger Games and is expected to slaughter her fellow Tributes to get home; she does it when she has to, but not in cold blood, and she maintains her moral core throughout.

Another interesting portrayal is that of Peeta, who's also selected to take part in the Games. Because the story is told in the first-person present tense, the only information we get on him is what Katniss sees, or what he himself tells her. He's the first one who suggests to Katniss that there might be some way to fight the Capitol, by keeping true to himself rather than by rebelling openly, and this influences the outcome of the story, when they are the last two Tributes remaining and are ordered to try and kill one another (told you there'd be spoilers).

If I have some objections, it's that sometimes things in the story are a little too simple or cut-and-dried. Katniss develops a bond with another girl, Rue, who reminds her of her younger sister. Rue proves herself to be clever and mostly able to take care of herself (apart from, y'know, getting killed at some point), and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop; that is, for Rue to turn out to be the most dangerous of the Tributes, or something like that. In fairness, it's not a bad thing that Collins subverts the reader's expectations by not turning Rue into a homicidal maniac, but it's also accurate to say that once the Games start, you know straight off who the good guys and the bad guys are. The one exception is Peeta, who seems to change sides a couple of times during the story.

The other thing that slightly bothered me was when the Gamemakers announced that if two Tributes from the same district could win; the minute I read that I knew that Katniss and Peeta would be the last two, and that when they were the final survivors the rules would be changed again to force them to try and kill one another. I suppose you could have kept the suspense longer if that initial rule change hadn't occurred, but I guess Collins had to find some way for Katniss and Peeta to be working together at the end.

Still, it was a fun book, and I enjoyed how Collins used the trappings of Ancient Greece and Rome to talk about what's happening in America now. I've got the two sequels waiting for me on my bookshelf, so I'll see how she develops her themes further.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Hands Off the Semi-Colon and Nobody Gets Hurt

Whenever my birthday rolls around, my dad usually sends me a book or a CD, via Amazon's UK site. Sometimes he'll ask me what I want, but other times he'll surprise me, based on other books we've both enjoyed. One year he got me a translation of the Vinland Sagas, talking about the Viking expeditions to the New World, based on the fact that these sagas were part of the heritage JRR Tolkien drew on in creating Middle-Earth.

So this year he sent over a collection of MR James' ghost stories, probably because we both spent a lot of time reading HP Lovecraft back when I was in high school. That, and he also wanted me to read a particular story, The Mezzotint, which is regarded as one of James' best.

The book was pretty enjoyable in terms of providing chills, and it kind of made me want to become an antiquary (which is what nearly all of James' main characters are). James also used some interesting narrative devices to draw readers into his stories, which was fun to read. Another thing I appreciated was how The Mezzotint inspired an episode of the new Twilight Zone that scared the crap out of me in middle school - James' story centers on a picture that changes whenever the main characters look at it, depicting a ghostly incursion, and the Twilight Zone episode had something similar.

Interestingly, MR James' stories are still pretty easy to find - since reading the book from my dad, I've seen a few other collections in various bookstores, or different versions of the collection I have. But the one that really caught my eye was one that "updates" James' prose. Specifically, the preface to this new edition says something about changing the punctuation to make it easier for modern readers to follow.

I find this kind of thing objectionable, on several levels. For one thing, MR James' prose, as it stands, is not so impenetrable as to require deciphering. We're talking about fiction that was written around one hundred years ago - unlike Shakespeare or Chaucer, his English is the same as ours, and doesn't require a glossary at the back to explain unfamiliar words.

Can you imagine if someone tried to clean up James Joyce's Ulysses for modern readers, or (for a slightly more widely read example) Jane Austen? Book nerds and literature professors would storm the publishing houses with torches and pitchforks.

The other reason is that not everything needs to be easy and disposable. I'll admit that once or twice while reading James' stories, I had to go back and read more closely, because if my mind wandered I might get lost in the sub-clauses. But while this new edition's publishers might say that's why they're doing it, I'll argue that it just proves the importance of reading James' work closely.

Even though most people would scoff at the idea, you actually can sit down with a book for a few hours and really concentrate on what you're reading; some books even reward that kind of reading, by revealing all kinds of interesting subtext. And even if there's no subtext, really paying attention to the words on the page helps you visualize what's happening in the story. James' prose can be subtle, and you need to be visualizing the action to get a proper sense of how scary his stories are.

And more to the point, the way an author uses punctuation is part of their style, dammit. Finnegan's Wake might be full of run-on sentences and craziness, but that's not because James Joyce's copyeditor phoned it in that day; rejigging MR James' prose for modern readers is like remastering the Beatles... sure, someone went and did it, but most fans would rather listen to the original recordings.

I could go on, but then I'd have to change the name of this blog to the Crotchety-Old-Bastard-Lab. I think my point has been made - leave the commas where they are, step away from the semi-colon, and we can all go home to our families tonight. Nobody needs to die, right?

Saturday, 21 July 2012


The latest draft of the novel is done!

Of course, work on it continues - I've got to go back and make sure the first few chapters hang together tonally and thematically with the later ones, flesh out the characters and locales, etc. To say nothing of eventually trying to get the damn thing published.

But for now, I'm content to listen to YouTube videos featuring upbeat soul and funk songs from the 60s and 70s to show how pleased I am with myself.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Comfort Food for the Eyes

My social life is active enough that I am able to make excellent use of my LoveFilm subscription (for those in the US, LoveFilm is the UK's answer to Netflix). I get four discs sent to me each month, and I'm generally able to watch all four with time to spare.

Because the queue system is a little bit screwy, I never know exactly what they'll be sending me next - there's a priority system, which LoveFilm's system tends to completely ignore in favor of sending me things from the depths of my list. This isn't generally a problem, as I do actually want to see everything on my queue, but it gets a little annoying to be two or three discs into one show only to have the system spit out disc one of another show.

So whenever I get to the end of a season of something, I go in and start rearranging things, so I can make sure I get the next show without any interruptions. I have a lot of SF/geeky stuff in my list (there may be a correlation between this and the state of my social life, but I don't want to infer causality either way), but I like to break it up a little bit with other types of shows. For instance, I couldn't really go through all seven seasons of Voyager in one gulp - I'd have to break that up with a season of The Shield or something. But then, too many seasons in a row of the Shield would be a little much for me as well.

So I was pretty excited to be getting Season 2 of Voyager, after two seasons in a row of the Shield. There's just something reassuring for me about watching some science fiction from time to time, like eating comfort food; and in this case, not only have I had two seasons of the Shield, but with house moves and other things taking precedence, I feel like I haven't actually seen any SF this year.

Naturally, this got me thinking about why certain genres should be like comfort food for us, even if we don't particularly enjoy every example of that genre. I've sat through duff seasons of the X-Files, Babylon 5, Enterprise... and yet, bad as it all is, it still scratches some itch.

I've long been interested in the idea that genres have specific conventions, and the success of a work in a particular genre is judged on the basis of how well it hews to these conventions, and by how well it subverts the more cliched elements. In fantasy, for example, many authors are fond of talking about how many tropes they've subverted (no farm-boys who find swords of power, please!), but if you go too far out of the boundaries set by Tolkien, then it either ceases to be fantasy, or it doesn't get published (cf the sequel to Hal Duncan's Vellum and Ink).

So we go to fantasy - or detective novels, or romcoms - with certain expectations about what will be in the story. We've probably seen or read loads of other works in that genre, so we know the basic story these works all tell; what we want is to hear the story told again, but just differently enough that it surprises us. In my experience, having read The Lord of the Rings, I want to find other stories that stir the same kinds of emotions in me; the stories that do that (eg Game of Thrones) stir other emotions, and so I go looking for stories that provoke that new reaction too.

And the logical extension of this is that I then start writing stories myself that will give rise to these reactions too.

There are two extremes to which this genre expectation can go. As I've said, in the fantasy genre there's kind of this expectation now that you subvert tropes, to the point where subverting tropes becomes a trope in itself. It's also become fashionable to set stories in secondary worlds based on cultures other than the traditional European (or more accurately English) medieval setting; Guy Gavriel Kay mentioned this in an interview, which I thought was spot-on.

Superhero comics present an example of the other extreme, where the story has become so formalized that it might as well be kabuki, or more appropriately porn - each beat has to be hit perfectly, and it needs to end with a money shot, which in comics is a big splash page of somebody being punched in the face (or, if you want a double-entendre, "Pow, right in the kisser!").

The first extreme is actually the harder to avoid, because it gets to be a matter of craft and artistic vision - Tolkien presented us with a world that, while built from Scandinavian and Germanic epic poetry, was uniquely his. Many who have come after him have attempted to tell the same story, without regard to what they were bringing to it; it's what they call the second artist effect, where one artist paints a landscape because she sees something unique, and the second artist paints the same landscape because people liked the first one, or she wanted to recreate the feelings that the first landscape gave her.

This is all a bit far from my original thesis, perhaps, but I think the idea of comfort viewing is bound up with this second artist effect. We are all constantly trying to recapture an initial, powerful reaction, and sometimes it leads us down odd roads.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Euro 2012: That's that

It's been about a week since the Euro 2012 final, and I think I'm ready to write about it now. Five stages of grief and all that. Also, I was actually in Italy for the match, with no access to the internet, so the write-up had to wait until now.

I've been banging on all tournament about upsets and surprises, but this match turned out to be both a surprising one and business-as-usual, all at the same time. Business as usual because Spain beat Italy, but surprising in that Spain actually scored more than one goal on the way to doing that. Slightly embarrassingly, the only other team to concede 4 goals playing against Spain was Ireland; at the time everyone just assumed that was because Ireland was so crap and that proper teams could never concede that many against a team that doesn't play strikers.

Guess Spain showed us, huh?

It was a very odd game, though. After beating Germany pretty convincingly, Italy looked a bit slow against Spain, a bit panicky, and not quite the dominant force they presented against England. The Italian announcers insisted the team was exhausted, which may or may not have been true, but struck me as a little odd, given that Germany had 48 hours to prepare for the semi-final and still rolled over.

Probably a better explanation was that Italy got it badly wrong, and Spain managed to take advantage of it. Evidence for this was Italy's injury problems during the match. Cesare Prandelli had to use up one substitution in the first half to take off an injured Giorgio Chiellini, and then his bid to replace Riccardo Montolivo with Thiago Motta went badly wrong when Motta went off injured and left Italy with ten men for the rest of the match.

For the example of Chiellini, he wasn't at his best for the start of the game (the first goal may have been caused by his mistake, in fact), and after he went off Italy did look a lot more positive. The case of Motta is a little more worrying, however, because it came about because of some probably useless tinkering on Prandelli's part. Montolivo had been playing well before being taken off, and it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that Italy could have scored with him on the field; instead Prandelli opted not only for a more defensive formation with Motta, but also for a slower group of midfielders. With that in mind, it's not surprising that Spain's "four Pirlos" could run rings around Italy's lone Pirlo, Andrea.

This was the second instance of Prandelli squandering his substitutions, (the first was the game against England). Admittedly, Italy got away with that one, but it points to a slightly worrying tendency on his part to tinker - somewhat like Claudio Ranieri, who earned the nickname of "the Tinkerman" during his time at Chelsea.

It's impossible to tell what would have happened if Montolivo had stayed on, but I'd like to think it wouldn't have been a 4-0 drubbing.

That said, I think it's worth noting that despite the scoreline Italy had an impressive game, keeping a lot more of the possession than other teams have managed. And at the same time, they kept a positive outlook throughout (mostly), in contrast with the Italy-Spain game that graced Euro 2008.

So there goes another tournament. The next thing we have to look forward to is the World Cup in Brazil, two years from now (although rest assured I'll be blogging the Confederations Cup next summer). Everybody will be looking for Spain to continue its onslaught on the trophy cabinet (and the stats pages, by being the first European team to win in South America); at the same time, this will be Brazil's big chance to finally win the tournament on home soil, an achievement that's eluded it so far.

A lot can happen in two years, though at the moment those two sides look like the only ones with a possibility of winning. But in that case, Prandelli said it best before the match against the Germans: "Then I might as well just go home." While the World Cup is never quite as open as the European Championships, with luck all of the big teams will arrive in Brazil in two years at full strength and ready to challenge for the title.

It could happen, right?

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Euro 2012: The Match of the Century

Well, holy shit. Again.

While the group stages were full of upsets and excitement, it's fair to say that the knockout stages pretty much went back on-message, with all the most-fancied teams winning at more or less of a walk, at least in the quarters. Portugal cashiered the Czechs, Germany kicked the Greeks out of the Euros, Spain bade adieu to the French and Italy did a job on the English.

(Yes, I think I've gotten all the puns out of my system now, thanks.)

Moving on to the semis, an average Spain beat an equally average Portugal, but on penalties, which left a rampaging German team to face an Italy that's maybe not been as feared as Germany or Spain, but which has been showing itself to be a well-organized force. The chorus of pundits writing Italy off before tonight's game apparently reached such a fever pitch that Italy coach Cesare Prandelli is said to have replied, "Well then, why don't we just go home now?"

I'll admit I was not particularly hopeful myself - but I'll take this result. And once again I'll say, this is why they play the games.

Regrettably, I missed the first half, but from the replays I've seen Balotelli's goals were amazing. And more hearteningly, even at 2-0 up Italy was still going for it, especially when Alessandro Diamanti came on. My only complaint is that even so, the Italians weren't quite able to kill it off, with the Germans pulling one back through a penalty after a handball from Federico Balzaretti.

But they weathered the storm, stopping a German team that looked like they'd take the trophy at a trot. I don't like to put too much stock in previous form (after all, the French had never been beaten by Spain until last Saturday), but I am intrigued by the idea that Germany regards Italy in much the same way that England regards Germany.

So anyway, on to the final, and that rematch between Italy and Spain that the Spanish press suggested after the opening game in Group C. Given how unconvincing Spain has been lately, and how convincing Italy's been, I think it's fair to say that anything can happen. Just as long as it isn't another 0-0 draw.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Euro 2012: Italy make it look difficult, as usual

Well, guess which game I was watching?

I'm one of those fans who are always pessimistic, and I've determined over the years that this is the best way to root for Italy. After all, it's a team that's had two abject tournaments in a row, after having won the World Cup in 2006. And frankly, they looked at several points tonight like continuing that streak.

There was the early scare - I'm talking within the first minute - where Robbie Keane was through on goal. And, not to get too arrogant or anything, but I couldn't help but be worried that Italy didn't score against Ireland within the first five minutes... y'know, the way Spain and Croatia both did.

But more seriously, once the goal did come, there was the ever-present worry that Italy would just sit back on that lead. In fairness, they didn't - at least not straight away - but as the minutes wore on into the second half, there was a definite sense of Italy losing momentum. Add to that the ever-present fear of Spain and Croatia drawing in the concurrent game, and it was easy to get a little impatient with the Azzurri.

But Italy regained the initiative, and a goal from Mario Balotelli helped see off Ireland for once and all. And from there, I switched over to the Spain-Croatia game, just long enough to see Croatia fail to equalize, and go crashing out as well.

Phew. Breath released.

So now it's going to be England. Or France. Or perhaps even Ukraine. But at the very least, Italy's finally won a major tournament game again, and kept a clean sheet, and scored two goals in a game. Not exactly a set of achievements to set the pulse racing, but one has to start somewhere.

Roll on the quarterfinals!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Euro 2012: We now resume our normal service

Well, rather shamefacedly, I have to admit that my predicting Denmark could win the tournament has been proven a little bit fanciful. Probably it was the sight of the Dutch being caught flat-footed, although subsequent games have shown just how abject the Netherlands were. In fairness, though, even Germany wasn't able to keep Denmark from scoring, so I think the Danes can go home with a sense of pride, at having given each of their rivals in the group of death a real challenge.

Germany, meanwhile, go on to face Greece in a rather topical-sounding matchup. Before anybody gets too cocky and says the Germans are guaranteed to roll over the Greeks, it's probably worth remembering that eight years ago Greece won the tournament by knocking some of the most-fancied teams, notably the Czech Republic, who were flying pretty high at that time.

Of course, it's also notable that this German team, despite not looking like the unstoppable juggernauts every imagines them to be every couple of years, has come through the group stage with a perfect record, a feat that has eluded every other team in this tournament. Despite jokes about Europe's economic situation, or Greece's record eight years ago, the Germans have to go into the next round as favorites to progress, and in my opinion, to win the tournament. Unlike some teams (COUGH Italy COUGH COUGH England), Germany is generally willing to go beyond what's asked of them rather than sit on a one-goal lead.

Watch me climb down from this prediction next week, of course.

Going home with the Danes are the Dutch, who are only saved by the Irish from being the worst team at Euro 2012 (Sweden having already scored more goals than the Netherlands). I haven't seen enough of them this year to say why exactly they've been so bad, but it could indeed be the hoodoo working on Arjen Robben of having lost in the Champions League final. Add to that the fact that Wesley Sneijder hasn't had the best season, and perhaps you begin to see why they've had such a tough time.

As for Portugal, I've seen even less of them than the Dutch, but I'm still not convinced by them. They may have one of the world's two best players in Cristiano Ronaldo, but I think the rest of the team isn't quite to his standard (and his finishing wasn't brilliant against Denmark either). I do think they'll make it past the Czechs, but I have trouble seeing them going much beyond the semi-finals.

Tomorrow, of course, we have another group of "anything-can-happen", as Italy looks to put the final nail in Ireland's coffin and Spain and Croatia conspire to knock Italy out (or so the Italian press will have us believe). I expect Italy to just squeak past the Irish, but as to whether Spain and Croatia will draw 2-2, I don't want to speculate. Whatever happens, it'll be ugly.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Euro 2012: Through the Looking Glass

Holy shit. What just happened there?

I don't think anybody expected, going into tonight's final Group A games, that Greece would progress to the knock-out stages and Russia wouldn't. Moreover, that the Czechs, who began the tournament being spanked 4-1 by Russia, would top the group. But to return to the wisdom of baseball's Yogi Berra: that's why they play the games.

Russia came into the final game in pole position (no pun intended), requiring no more than a point to qualify. Greece started the match at the bottom of the group, essentially written off, unless they could scrape a win against what many considered to be the best team in Group A. And yet, despite dominating the match in terms of possession, a goal from Giorgos Karagounis was enough to put Greece into the quarter-finals. Karagounis will not be running out for that next game, thanks to a yellow card for alleged diving, but from the Greek celebrations, you'd think they just won the tournament.

Of course, having come in second, they're most likely to face Germany in the next round, barring something unexpected tomorrow. But then, the unexpected has been cropping up all over the place in this tournament so far.

Meanwhile, the Czechs bounced back from a pretty terrible first-game showing to beat Poland and knock out the co-hosts. It looked for a long time like it might become the first 0-0 draw of Euro 2012, but for all that was still an exciting, fast-paced match, though the Poles, despite taking the most shots, rarely looked like they were in any danger of actually scoring. Even at the end, when an equalizer would have simply knocked themselves and the Czechs out, they didn't look all that incisive. The Czechs dominated possession, meanwhile, spearheaded by a series of runs from Vaclav Pilar, in particular.

The win puts them on top of the group, which means they face whoever comes in second tomorrow in Group B - whoever that turns out to be, since even the abject Netherlands are capable, apparently, of making it to the next round. In any case, and knowing how easily these two teams have overturned conventional wisdom, the road probably won't go much farther for either. But it'll be fun to see how it turns out, whatever happens.