Saturday, 27 December 2014

My Own Suggestion for Briton of the Year

I wanted to start this blog about the Times naming UKIP leader Nigel Farage "Briton of the Year" with a snarky comment suggesting that the venerable London paper's slide into irrelevance is now confirmed, but have decided to take a different tack (although, see what I did there?).

Admittedly, it is a little shocking. As a former immigrant to the UK, able to come and go as I please thanks to my Italian passport, I found all discussions about limiting (legal) immigration to be distasteful and short-sighted. And UKIP was (and I guess still is) an existential threat to me, in a manner of speaking - if they were to succeed in separating Britain from the EU, I'd immediately find it much harder to go back, find work, etc.

Farage is also a pretty unpleasant character, although he's clearly canny enough to have surrounded himself with people who make him look statesmanlike. His party seems to embroil itself in rows over homophobia or sexism or racism every other week, but as the Times notes, he's Teflon Nigel - nothing sticks.

But people who are up in arms about the choice are kind of missing the point. Hitler and Stalin were declared Man of the Year by Time magazine in the 1930s, after all. And that may sound glib (as well as an example of Godwin's Law), but the point isn't that the "Briton/Person/Whatever of the Year" is someone we admire - rather, it's about who we will best remember when we think back to 2014.

People have suggested alternate Britons of the Year, including the Ebola doctor Will Pooley or one of the people executed by ISIS. With respect, Pooley is for me a better choice, but still not who I'd choose. The other public figure who's not only been in the public eye a whole lot, and who's had a lot of words written about him, is Russell Brand, the comedian who's effectively been telling young people not to bother voting.

I wouldn't choose him either, though. Not just because I think his call to refusal is dangerous and short-sighted, in its way, as Farage's campaign against, well, everybody who had the misfortune not to be born British.

My choice would be the campaigners who successfully fought to keep from getting evicted from their homes on the New Era Estate in Shoreditch. They came to the game late, but their struggle was, for me, much more emblematic of what's happening in Britain than Farage or Brand. It's also more global - the fact that their homes were sold out from under them to an American real estate company that was ready to evict them all (or jack up their rent by at least three times), with the connivance of a sitting Tory MP, is something that's playing out everywhere.

What's admirable is that they were able to force the Tory MP and his brother to pull out of the deal, and then force the new owners to give up and sell the estate on to another housing charity. They took a stand against big money, and against selling off every last square foot of London to luxury home buyers from Russia, the Gulf or wherever, and against the odds, they won.

The reason I find the New Era group to be more deserving of Briton of the Year is that they tackled the root of what's wrong with Britain (and specifically London), whereas Farage and Brand are reacting to symptoms. Farage thinks everything would be fixed if Britain kicked out everybody who was born somewhere else; Brand thinks ignoring politicians and getting on with drugs and sex-parties is the way forward. But the New Era win shows that the way out of our current problems - in whichever country you live - is to work together to build a fairer society.

I'm sure plenty of people got evicted from their homes in London this Christmas, but the New Era activists have provided a template for how to combat predatory behavior by corporations against the individual.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Interview: Why canceling was the mistake Sony had to make

I've been following the Sony hack/Interview story all week with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found the idea of a Hollywood movie where a pair of American journalists go assassinate an existing, sitting head of state to be a little creepy. When the movie was announced, my first thought was, "What would America (ie the FBI, NSA, CIA, etc) do if Russia or Iran came up with a movie in which someone assassinated Barack Obama?" More pertinently, positioning it as a comedy seemed particularly off.

On the other hand, canceling it completely gives the appearance of capitulating to the hackers who have caused Sony so much damage. I understand Sony's contention that they had no choice because none of the major theater chains was willing to release it - but this still has a chilling effect on art and gives hackers from hostile countries proof that fucking with a major studio like that can work.

It's hard not to feel a little bad for Sony, in any case. As I say, I understand why they've pulled it from theaters, given that no theater chains seemed willing to carry it. Some were saying Sony should release The Interview on VOD, but in this atmosphere that strikes me as a slap in the face to theater chains - Cinemark and Carmike and their ilk are already suffering from an existential crisis, so to have a studio just bypass them completely would be grounds for them not carrying Sony movies in the future.

That might escalate into a war that would cause the chains to go out of business completely, but in the short term VOD is probably not viable enough that Sony's willing to risk having to shift its entire distribution model in that direction.

Straight-to-DVD is also an option, but probably not lucrative enough for Sony to really pursue... and outlets that carry physical DVDs are even more endangered than movie theaters, so they're probably even more chicken about carrying something as highly charged as the Interview (even if it seems unlikely that North Korean hacker/terrorist collectives would be able to pinpoint individual Best Buys or Walmarts).

That all said, I was reading that the leaked emails suggest the Interview is painfully bad, and Sony executives knew it. The kerfuffle around the leaked emails and the chains refusing to carry it probably gives Sony the cover to just pull the damn thing - sure, they've financed it thus far, but now they don't have to shell out any more cash to distribute it, promote it or premiere it. This episode will probably show up as a nasty blot on Sony Entertainment's Q4 results, but might not be as bad as if they actually released it and let people see what a piece of crap it was (again, I'm speculating - but to me the trailer looked singularly unappealing, and I was very likely not going to see it, creepy idea or not).

As far as the political response, I see President Obama as essentially doing what he has to in this case, which is also about all he can do. A nebulous threat to national security has resulted in a number of big business decisions, and nothing he says will actually change that - he can't issue an executive order to have the Interview released, but he'd really be screwing up if he didn't speak out about the threat and the movie's cancellation.

The most troubling political aspect, however, is the way that the minute someone invokes 9/11 we lose our nerve, no matter how shadowy (and likely fake) the group behind the threat is. While I don't want to see terrorist attacks on American soil, whether from foreign enemies (like al Qaeda) or domestic (like the NRA; yes, I went there), I also have a hard time believing that North Korea's security apparatus extends to targeting individual movie theaters, on a continent thousands of miles across and on the other side of the world.

It was troubling back in 2001-2002 how so much art, across movies, TV and comics, was cancelled because of 9/11 and the "offensiveness" of showing buildings being blown up, but at least then people were legitimately scared. But you still get idiots being offended at depictions of the Twin Towers - when Fringe revealed that they still stood in its alternate-universe New York, my then-flatmate (the stupidest human being ever to walk the Earth) said it was "fucked up" that they showed the buildings. And this was in 2012, for fuck sake.

From an artistic point of view, then, pulling the Interview (as bad as it may or may not be) is the worst response possible. Now that we've set a precedent for it, China or Russia or whoever can just hire a proxy to hack a server somewhere, vaguely mention 9/11, and they'll be able to get anything cancelled. It's happened to the Interview now, but who's to say it can't happen to something with actual artistic merit or entertainment value?

While Benjamin Franklin's quote about liberty vs security may be taken out of context, the way we use it now is actually relevant, pace Techcrunch - it's not smart to give up liberty in exchange for security in the short term, as you really do give up both in the long term. We're seeing those twin losses right now.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Finally Joining the Ranks of PS3 Gamers

One of my first acts when I moved back to the US a year ago was to buy a TV and Playstation 3. I'd been kind of wanting one for years after it came out, but they were ridiculously expensive (especially in the UK), and because I already had a PS2, it just didn't seem worthwhile. And then, of course, I got to a point where I was expecting to move back soon, so accumulating more stuff that I couldn't bring over didn't seem like a good idea either.

I did briefly toy with the idea of getting a PS4 (or even an Xbox One), but they were too new and the range of games wasn't as good. And while it seemed like it would be nice to be able to play Halo, I decided on the PS3 simply because I've had the Sony consoles for ages and preferred the Playstation-exclusive games, like Gran Turismo.

So over the course of the year I accumulated a few games that have gotten a lot of good critical reviews, or that friends recommended. However, because I try not to play videogames longer than an hour a day on weekends, it's meant I've built up a pretty sizable backlog. Two factors don't help here: I've bought a couple of trilogy sets (Mass Effect and the Assassin's Creed: Ezio Trilogy), and I've also bought some games that take absolute ages to finish (Skyrim).

There's another problem, though: these games are only about 50% fun, and 50% grind. And I'm wondering if that's something wrong with trends in game design, or with reviewers.

To clarify, I'm thinking specifically of Mass Effect 1, Assassin's Creed 2 and Skyrim, which are the games I've played most. AC2 is held up as the high water mark of the series, and visually it's undeniably a masterpiece. As I ran along the rooftops my dad would pass through and recognize landmarks from Florence, where much of the game takes place. The assassinations are also pretty enjoyable, at least at first - locating the target, tailing him, and then dropping onto him from a great height.

The problem is that this is pretty much all there is to the game. As you control Ezio, he maintains a pretty limited set of actions that he can accomplish, so there's little progression in terms of what you can do at the start compared to the end (apart from how confidently you do all that stuff). The final boss fight, where you beard Pope Cesare Borgia in his den, has the exact same mechanics as the very first fight you conduct at the start of the game. And don't get me started on the collection of treasure and feathers.

I've got Brotherhood and Revelations still to go, and because it was cheap and had good reviews I picked up Assassin's Creed 4, but I'm a little concerned based on the above.

Mass Effect 1, on the other hand, came with a warning from the guy at GameStop who sold it to me that I should hold my breath and get through it quickly, so I could reach ME2 quicker. Having now played through ME1, and started a few hours of ME2, I can see what he meant - while the game world you navigate is amazingly detailed (or gives the appearance), the play is actually pretty limited. It might have been because of the difficulty level I was playing, but leveling up didn't seem to have any effect on how well I got through sections of the game. And there was also the annoying BioWare thing, encountered in Dragon Age 2, of standardized cave and base layouts.

Mass Effect 2 seems to have dispensed with a few of these problems, but the RPG elements seem to have become more of a formality, or vestigial tail, if you like. Hunting for resources has also gotten to be an enormous bore, where you have to make multiple trips to supply depots just to deplete even a world with "moderate" resources.

If Mass Effect 1 was limited, I sometimes feel like Skyrim suffers from the opposite problem, of being too expansive. I got to a point soon after I first started it where I had a million quests and miscellaneous tasks, but no idea which one to start with, and I seemed to be too underpowered to accomplish any of them. Eventually I had to go find walkthroughs online, to impose some sort of order on the game, and that's helped me progress (that and crafting a really badass longsword).

Speaking of crafting, I'm wondering what possessed RPG developers in the last decade and a half or so, to add skills like leather-working and metallurgy and cooking (for fuck's sake) into their games. It seems to have plagued MMOs most of all, as I used to watch my old flatmate spend entire Saturdays on World of Warcraft or Aion doing nothing but grinding cooking or leather-working. Skyrim doesn't force you to those kinds of extremes, but what's wrong with how Final Fantasy used to do it, of just running around finding stuff?

That said, Skyrim is entertaining enough that I find it really hard to stick to my one-hour rule, as there's always just that one more door to go through, or that set of equipment to sell or craft, or whatever.

What I'd say is missing from this current generation, though, is something like Resident Evil 4. I feel like, for the most part, that game had the perfect balance. For one thing, playing on higher difficulty levels unlocked more areas of the game, which made it instantly replayable (I probably beat it 3 times). Every boss fight was also different, justifying all the weapons you were carrying around. But the best part, for me, was how it started off terrifying, but as soon as you got comfortable with the controls and difficulty levels, it would throw something else at you that would require a completely new strategy to defeat.

Case in point: by the end, my flatmate at the time was calling me "Jack Bauer", because I could kick down the door to a room toss in a couple of grenades and then mow down the survivors with the uzi, all in a couple of seconds. And then just a moment later they introduced a new bad guy, that you could only kill with a sniper rifle armed with a special scope. The bad guy was super slow, but so was the rifle, so that if you missed (or even if you didn't) you'd quickly find the monster gnawing on your head.

I guess the answer is to get Resident Evil 5, which was based on a similar game engine. But it's annoying that there aren't enough games like Resident Evil 4, at least in the batch I've seen, and what's coming up for PS4 doesn't seem much better either.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Thanksgiving: The Most and Least American of Holidays

In the years I lived in Britain, Thanksgiving became one of my favorite holidays. For one thing, I liked the idea of a break from work at the end of November, which we didn't get in the UK - public holidays there are set in such a way that between the end of August and Christmas, there are no days off at all. But it also struck me as the perfect way, along with Halloween, to delay the ever-earlier onset of Christmas decorations: here in the US, it's rare to see Christmas decorations before the first of November.

In the UK, by contrast, restaurants start taking bookings for office Christmas parties in August - no joke. One year Travelodge's ads on the Tube claimed that "it's never too early to book" for Christmas parties, which is a tacit admission that, yes, in fact, it was too early.

Sasha and Malia totally saw through that one, Travelodge

Eventually I also started to appreciate the fact that it's not really a consumer-driven or religious holiday (although there are some religious underpinnings to the first Thanksgiving, of course). Sure, you buy a turkey and all the food, but there's no pressure to buy presents or candy, and the point is to get together with your family and give thanks for what you have. I used to joke (on the square) that they should introduce Thanksgiving in the UK, both because it's easy to transport and because it would give a much-needed long weekend in the fall.

So I was rather excited to have my first Thanksgiving back at home in ten years. It wasn't a big family affair, because my sisters and dad were living in Europe, but my mom and step-dad laid out a nice spread for me, which we did ample justice to on Thursday. As is traditional, we also left loads of leftovers, which I've been chipping away at since.

Me after four days of Thanksgiving leftovers

But it was the day after, when I went for a walk to a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, that I got a sense of what the holiday means to Americans. At the start of the weekend I read an article that references Philip Roth and his description of Thanksgiving as the day when everyone eats the same thing as everyone else. 

I'd never thought of it that way, but that is, in fact, what makes Thanksgiving special among other holidays - Christmas and Easter reference one specific religion, even if everyone else has started celebrating them to a certain degree, while Halloween and even New Years Eve are open to being celebrated however you want. The only days that come close to offering the same sort of togetherness are Independence Day and Labor Day, which mark the only other occasion when Americans are pretty much all doing the same thing and the majority of people aren't working (a great many holidays here are optional for employers to give, which stinks, even though my company's given me all of them).

In any case, as I walked to Peet's Coffee, I saw a bunch of other people walking over, alone or in groups, with that same relaxed attitude that I was feeling. I knew that everybody I saw was recovering from their own Thanksgiving meal the day before, and now they were settling in for the rest of the long weekend.

It's easy to say that Thanksgiving is typically American, but I don't think it is. America is such a big, heterogeneous and fractious country that it's very hard to feel any connection to the people around you, whether coworkers or neighbors. As that article I read that mentioned Philip Roth said, your neighbor could be a fugitive from the law, or a cannibal, and the first you'd know about it is the police showing up on your street one day.

Britain, on the other hand, is small and crowded and homogeneous. London may be one of the most diverse cities in the world, but even there everything is set up as if its only inhabitants were white, Anglo-Saxon and Anglican. Christmas is the same kind of meal as Thanksgiving, with a roast turkey (or goose, if you want to be Dickensian) and a set of rituals that everybody partakes in: pulling crackers, drinking too much, listening to the Queen's Speech.

But this togetherness permeates everything that the British do - everybody shops at the same places (in part because Britain is the land of retail chains, but still), they watch the same TV and every couple of years pretty much everybody gets together to fulminate against another inept display by England's national team - whether in football, rugby or cricket, or even just to complain about the airtime sporting events seem to command (as if the World Cup were crowding out vibrant British TV, but again, I digress).

I'm being a little reductive, of course. People in London do lead different day-to-day lives than people in Northern England, and the different social classes have their own sets of rituals. But I do believe there are more constants in British life than in American life, which is why Roth's quote is so striking. Your family may do Thanksgiving differently than mine (my senior year in high school we ordered it from a restaurant, and hung out in the jacuzzi as we waited for the delivery), but the important thing is that we all do it, and that it's one of the few things that we, as a country, choose to have in common.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ignore the Naysayers: Wayne Rooney is one of the Greats

Wayne Rooney won his 100th cap for England last week, in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia. I didn't see the match, but by all accounts it was a pretty dire display by England, starting with an own-goal from Jordan Henderson and only being salvaged by England waking up in the second half and finally playing like they were expected to. Rooney helped in this turnaround, by winning a penalty, which he then converted - this led to a fightback and England won 3-1.

What's interesting is that on the eve of the game, the BBC posted an analysis piece asking whether Rooney could be considered a "great", as he was also steadily climbing up the list of England's top scorers ever. He went into the Slovenia game with 43 goals, putting him fourth on the list. By the end of the friendly against Scotland at Celtic Park a few days later, Rooney had moved up to third, with 46 goals, putting him two goals behind Gary Lineker and three behind all-time leader Bobby Charlton.

The thrust of Phil McNulty's piece was, in fact, to look at whether or not Rooney had fulfilled his potential from his debut in 2003. There were a number of comments from the likes of Danny Mills, pointing out that Rooney's been playing at the top of English football for over a decade; and from Alan Shearer, who suggested that Rooney isn't in the same class as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.

But if you think about it, what makes those two players great? When people debate whether Rooney's a "great" player or not, the implication is that he hasn't helped England win any trophies. Lineker may have led England to its first semi-finals since 1966, and Jimmy Greaves may have the better goals-per-games ratio (44 in 57 games), but Bobby Charlton remains at the top because he's one of the heroes of 1966.

But, like Rooney, neither Ronaldo nor Messi has won a World Cup. Ronaldo's never led Portugal to victory at the European Championships, and Messi's Argentina has never won a senior tournament (although he was on the winning U20 and Olympic teams).

Admittedly, Rooney isn't quite up there with Ronaldo or Messi in terms of Champions League goals, or European honors. He does also trail both in terms of career goals at club level, and his Wikipedia page lacks a section detailing all the records he's broken, whereas Ronaldo and Messi's pages have long lists of records, many of which they share, such as scoring against all teams in their league or getting to 25 goals.

I'm not denying both are great players, but I'd just like to note that they each play for the only teams in Spain that are credible title contenders each year - it's easy to look world-class when your competition is leagues behind you. English football is slightly more competitive, as the top three or four teams have changed several times in the last decade (anybody else remember when Newcastle was considered a top- four club?).

I guess my point is, it's harsh to say that Rooney's not a "great" player just because he isn't as good as the two guys who win the FIFA Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year awards every year. He's not a prolific goalscorer, but he gets enough to help Manchester United challenge for the title (most seasons - although if United's poor form continues I wouldn't be surprised to see him pitch up at Chelsea or even Manchester City).

And I think Mills is right when he says that Rooney's been playing at the top of English football for over a decade. Rooney's not even 30 yet, remember, so he has a few years to go before he hits the decline that's currently plaguing his England teammate Steven Gerrard. It's likely, barring injury, that Rooney will also play in the 2018 World Cup, although I think it's fair to say that his last tournament in his prime will be 2016.

Rooney will probably never lift an international trophy (and neither will Ronaldo; Messi could still win a Copa America or something with Argentina). But he will surpass Bobby Charlton as England's top scorer ever, and his record will probably stand for a good long while. That strikes me as enough to seal Wayne Rooney's reputation forever.

Sunday, 16 November 2014


Last night I caught Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's latest movie. It's been a pretty dispiriting year for me at the cinema, if I'm honest - 22 Jump Street is a pretty awful date movie, I've discovered - so it was nice to see something that had a sense of grandeur about it, and that wasn't based on a comic book.

I have a lot of time for Christopher Nolan, although I do think his output is variable. I loved The Dark Knight, for example, and thought Batman Begins was agreeable enough, if not the second coming of Batman that the reviews would have had us believe at the time. On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises was gibberish, and Inception just annoys me the more I think about it, although that fight scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's walking on the walls and ceiling is ridiculously good.

So I'm pleased to report that Interstellar feels more like The Dark Knight than The Dark Knight Rises. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, for reasons I'll outline below. But first:

He's back!

Interstellar is just the next step in Matthew McConaughey's career evolution, playing pilot-turned-farmer eking out his existence with his kids and his father-in-law on a slowly dying Earth. Something impels him to go looking for a specific set of coordinates, by which means he unearths NASA and its plot to rescue humanity by finding a new planet to live on. Unfortunately, relativity being what it is, decades will pass back on Earth, while he experiences only a few weeks. These relativity effects are only intensified by the presence of a black hole near two of the candidate planets, and there are further complications when Matt Damon tries to kill everybody. In the end McConaughey goes into the black hole, where it's revealed that he's the one who gave himself those coordinates by manipulating 5-dimensional space. He survives to be reunited with his daughter, 100 years after they last saw one another, and then goes to forge humanity's destiny with Anne Hathaway on the final candidate world.

It owes a lot, as you can imagine, to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are some amazing shots of the astronauts' space habitat crossing Saturn's rings, or surfing the edge of the black hole's event horizon, that really hint at the vastness of space. There's even a psychedelic sequence where they travel through the wormhole to reach the planets - I wouldn't have been surprised to see a shot of McConaughey's pupils dilating, but thankfully Nolan forbore.

But it also does a good job of showing contrasting that vastness with the claustrophobia of an Earth that's edging ever closer to collapse. Instead of the wide shots in space, which typically have the ship or habitat as a little white dot in the bottom third of the screen, for the Earth-bound action Nolan sticks with tight shots - whether on an actor (for instance Jessica Chastain as McConaughey's daughter, who joins NASA) or on the wheels of McConaughey's truck as he drives away from home for the last time.

One good thing about Inception was the inventiveness of its visuals, from the way dream-Paris folded in on itself, to the above-mentioned fight scene, and Interstellar was another opportunity for Nolan to show off. The space shots I mentioned above were breathtaking, but so was the first planet the astronauts visited, a world covered by a few inches of ocean and plagued by enormous tidal waves caused by its proximity to the black hole. You get a hint of the waves' size when they first land, but almost before they know it the water's towering over them, and it was stunning, as was their fight to survive the second wave and get the hell off the planet.

The other nice effect is on the second planet, where they meet Killer Matt Damon. It's an ice planet, and as they come down they break the tip off a cloud that looks like what we'd get here, but is frozen solid.

I had very few quibbles with the plot in general (which has, unfortunately, become kind of rare for me), but I did object a little bit to the business inside the black hole, where McConaughey's floating around inside the backs of his daughter's bookshelves, communicating with her and his past self. That, and the fact that his sentient robot TARS also survived to explain what was happening, felt a little too deus ex machina. Or, to put it in terms the modern nerd would appreciate, "timey-wimey".

Possibly Nolan and his brother wrote themselves into a corner with all the black hole stuff. Also, it cut short a movie that was pretty intensely long - like the Dark Knight, it's hard to think what you'd cut to slim it down, but I was feeling the need for a breather after all that raw emotion of the previous two hours.

There was also Killer Matt Damon's bobby-trapped robot, which makes no sense in the context of a guy who expected never to see another human or get off the planet again. But sci-fi movies evidently have to have explosions, so there we go (and it killed the black guy, although thankfully, he was the second crewmember to die).

But apart from those two points, the movie was very satisfying, both emotionally and in terms of plot. McConaughey gets to see his daughter again, if briefly - because she's now over 100 years old - and the final shot, of Anne Hathaway returning to the colony she will share with McConaughey, gave me goosebumps.

Also, Nolan made excellent use of TARS, the wise-cracking robot. It was built to look like one of the black monoliths from 2001, but with points of articulation and displays. The effects where TARS rolled across the landscape or reclined to act as an HUD for the astronauts were well-done, and I liked that TARS didn't go crazy and try to kill the humans (although it did joke about human slaves for its colony, which was a nice touch).

So my verdict is: more of this, please. Interstellar is science fiction that, at least for the movies, doesn't stint on the science, but also doesn't forget that the action is driven by the characters. I'd be proud to have a movie like this on my resume.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

DC's killing it on TV, if not in comics

Despite my blog post a few weeks ago asking where all the good comics have gone, I have recently found myself consuming a lot of superhero-based TV. I mentioned at the time that the offerings were pretty hit-or-miss, and they are, but I'm starting to see the balance shift toward the positives rather than the negatives.

The main bright spot for me is the Flash, on the CW. The Flash has always been one of my favorite characters (ie, I've always wanted super-speed), and if this current incarnation has all the trappings of the CW, in the form of a ridiculously young and photogenic cast, it also reminds me of the Flash comics I used to read in high school, specifically from the years that Mark Waid was writing it. I can think of no higher compliment for a comics adaptation.

Specifically, when Waid wrote the character, there was a nice balance of the fantastic with the mundane, as we saw Wally West (who'd taken over from Barry Allen, but the distinction doesn't truly matter, does it?) balancing his superhero life with his personal life. A big part of Waid's run dealt with Wally living up to Barry's legacy, but he also did a good job of fleshing out the world around Wally, including the city he lived in and all the other heroes he interacted with regularly.

That's probably not a coincidence, as one of the people who developed the show is Geoff Johns, the writer who took over the comic after Mark Waid left. I never read Johns's run, but I know he doubled down on developing the setting, including turning Central City into a working-class, industrial city.

With Johns as one of the people guiding the ship, they've put together a nice ensemble cast (and much quicker than happened on Arrow), and there are enough nods to the comics to keep me curious about how they'll deal with characters like the Reverse Flash and other members of the Rogues Gallery.

Arrow's another one that I've grown to appreciate more as it's gone on - it frequently feels a lot sillier than the Flash, in a bad way, but like its spinoff, it's done a nice job of presenting minor characters from the comics as a way to keep the readers interested (for example, the most recent episode I saw featured a boxer named Ted Grant, who was, of course, also the superhero named the Wildcat).

Another one I've enjoyed so far was Constantine, which - at least in its first episode - does a good job of capturing the feel of the early Hellblazer comics written by Jamie Delano. John Constantine is probably the ideal character for a TV show, especially now that you can show a lot more gore than you could in the past, and I think that drawing on those early issues is a good choice by the TV show's creators.

I've been a little less impressed with Gotham, though. I was actually pretty excited by the idea of a pre-Batman police procedural, but I feel like the continuity actually weighs the story down in this case (I've gotten through the first four episodes, but have now given up). We've been shown a bunch of characters from the comics and the movies, but the fact that ten-year-old Bruce Wayne is present in every episode shows how long we have to go before we get to the good stuff.

I can't help thinking that they should have set it about a decade later, to just before Batman showed up. That was one of the strengths of what I saw of Smallville: we weren't actually that far off from the known history shown in the comics, but there was just enough progression each episode that you could see Clark Kent developing into Superman. There's no such feeling of forward motion in Gotham.

All of the shows referenced above are based on DC characters, which I find kind of funny. Marvel's done a better job transferring its characters to the movies, while DC's movies have mostly been disappointing (except for the Dark Knight, of course). On TV, by contrast, I stuck with Agents of SHIELD throughout most of the first season, but even the reveal about Ward and all the fallout from Captain America 2 couldn't persuade me to catch the season finale.

Thinking about it, I have a feeling that's because Agents of SHIELD draws on either much older or much newer material than I'm familiar with, whereas the DC shows seem to be referencing a lot more from when I read those comics. My favorite DC era being the late 80s, I was really excited to see the Suicide Squad pop up on Arrow last season, for instance.

In any case, I'm feeling a little more positive now than when I wrote my previous post, although my initial complaint still stands, in part because DC recently announced yet another giant crossover, called Convergence. I think they should just rename it "Constant Crisis", run it in place of all their comics, and just have done with it. At the very least, the TV properties aren't doing the same - yet.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Is the Western model broken, or just ill-served?

I caught this piece on the Guardian recently, and thought it was interesting, since the Economist has been discussing something similar lately (and indeed, it talks about a book by two Economist bigwigs - that's what I get for linking to something without rereading it!). I have, in fact, had arguments about this subject with friends from time to time, although the word I used was "democracy" rather than "Western model".

I'm a proud democrat (and sometimes less proud Democrat), so I feel it's worth repeating that "triumphalistic" or "teleological" interpretations of history, in which we're promised that if we all just adhere to Western ways of living, don't sum up my own view of history, or really that of most people. Francis Fukuyama may have proclaimed the end of history after the Soviet Union collapsed, but I feel like the only people who took that seriously were those who've never read any history themselves.

You could even say that democracy (Western-style or otherwise) has been suffering ebbs and flows ever since the end of World War II - you only have to look at the history of places like Indonesia or the wider Arab world to see that the process frequently gets hijacked. That doesn't mean, to my mind, that you ignore the whole concept of personal liberty.

But I do agree that an insistence on doing things the way they've been done here or in Europe is counterproductive. The Guardian piece highlights the centuries of bloodshed that went into creating the current peace that the Western world enjoys - bloodshed surrounding religious and cultural differences, to say nothing of the slave trade and the extermination of native cultures in North and South America or Australia. And worse, in trying to contain Communism the West was frequently just as cynical as its Soviet rivals - the democratic process in the regions mentioned above (as well as Africa, South America, wherever) was usually subverted with the implicit or explicit approval of the US.

The point, though, is that even if the US didn't always live up to certain of its own ideals, it doesn't mean those ideals are necessarily useless. I sometimes think pundits get a little too bogged down in the actual terminology of Western politics, without thinking about the wider issues at play. The American revolution was (or is believed to be) significant for making explicit the idea that kings or presidents rule with the consent of the governed - this is an idea that you can trace across all cultures. Even Chinese emperors who didn't have the support of the people frequently ended up badly (just look at what happened to Wang Mang).

My argument is that Western-style democracy is based on this idea (much like I believe religion generally boils down to just being nicer to people), and it's associated with the West because it happened here first, and in a way that helped America become successful. Regular people want be able to live their lives, feed their families and, now that we nominally have all this free time, entertain themselves as they see fit. Governments should be able to provide these things, in the form of services and protection from external and internal threats - most poor people, in China, Africa or Mississippi, would rather eat than have ideology thrown at them, whether that ideology is free-market capitalism or socialism or something else.

This isn't a call for anarchy or Objectivism - it's the simple point that, in my view, if you allow citizens the chance to live their lives as they wish, without worrying about whether or not the playing field is level, then everything else falls into place: stability, prosperity and rule of law. If anything is tarnishing the image of the West right now, it's that we (especially here in the US) don't always live by that principle, and we're paying for it now with instability and income inequality. Because I'm biased, I'll note that the main problem is the hidebound ideology of the Republicans (in the interest of fairness, I believe the Democrats are too spineless to have an ideology).

If we allow one party of religious fundamentalists and Objectivist Randroids to derail our democratic process, as we're doing now, then of course Western-style democracy doesn't look too appealing. But I feel that if we in the West get back to living those principles of stability, safety and equality of opportunity, and don't concern ourselves with making sure Uganda or Cambodia align their political and economic systems with our own, then our model will become more appealing. Especially if we also don't force them to buy our crap.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Short stories v Novels v Movies: which to write, and how to go about it

My writing activities have evolved a little over the course of the year, compared to what I was concentrating on last year. Traditionally, I've focused on the traditional prose forms, ie short stories and novels, but this year I've been working more on movie plots, which I think (hope) will improve my storytelling skills overall.

To be honest, both the short stories and novels have been a little frustrating this year. I've been working on the same set of short stories for the last few years - the better part of a decade - without making much progress. One of them did get picked up by, a monthly contest, for which I'm super grateful - actual money for getting a story published somewhere! Someone at World Fantasy Con last year was even super nice when I mentioned it, saying that it meant I could actually call myself a writer now.

Only problem is that I haven't followed that initial success up with any further publications. I've submitted the hell out of a couple of other stories this year (probably racked up more submissions between those two than I have over the last few years combined, which should give an indication how much I was slacking on that front), but no bites. More frustrating, when I workshopped one of those stories, one of the pros kept suggesting magazines that I'd already subbed it to.

With the other stories, the ones that I haven't deemed ready for prime time, I'm stuck in another quandary: namely, do I go back and revise them once again, or do I give up on them? The reason I'm a little reluctant to give up on them completely is because I don't seem to have any short stories in me anymore - I eked one out last year, which was my first since 2010, but I'm not sure it's worth going back and revising. And I'm not sure any of the others are, either.

It's similar on the novels front. After spending three years drafting and re-drafting my "vampires vs superheroes in an epic fantasy setting" book (I still love the idea, btw), I hit an impasse that so drained my momentum that I ended up throwing the manuscript in the trunk (the metaphorical trunk, because it's on my hard drive, of course). I have another idea that's been percolating, and that reuses characters and settings from another trunk novel, but I haven't really had the brainpower to devote to it.

Which is why the movie treatments I've been working on have been so valuable. I finally picked up Robert McKee's Story a couple of years ago, which introduced me to the idea of formalized, three-act story structure. Following that, I also bought Screenwriting for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, which dismisses McKee as the domain of Greenwich Village-haunting intellectuals and lays out a very simplified story structure:

Act 1: Get a likeable guy stuck up a tree;
Act 2: Throw rocks at him;
Act 3: Get him down out of the tree.

Using that, and the script treatments that Lennon and Garant kindly publish at the end of their book, I've written up a few treatments of my own, and I feel like I'm starting to finally crack this story structure thing. After setting myself the goal of doing one each quarter, I feel like I've seen a visible improvement in how I move the characters and scenes along - I just finished the third last night, and it seems to have gone much more smoothly than the two before it.

My hope for the long-term is to use these skills in improving my novels - although if I could use them to break into screenwriting I'd be pretty happy too. I slightly question how slavishly we need to follow McKee's three-act structure, or Campbell's "Hero's Journey" template, when writing prose, but I'm kind of encouraged to know that two published authors I knew back in London said they used another screenwriting book, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, for their own structure.

As far as the short stories, I'm still deciding whether or not to give up on them completely. I think the idea that writers need to focus on them first has fallen by the wayside - although some writers, like Daniel Abraham or Myke Cole have taken that route, others have just skipped straight to novels, like Peter Brett and Joe Abercrombie. Not that I'm comparing myself to any of those four - I'm just using them to prove a point (and remind myself how much work I still have to do).

And all four writers prove Steve Martin's maxim of being so good that no one can ignore you. My shift from short stories to novels and then movies is in this same vein - as long as I prove I can write, does it really matter what form I write in first?

What's keeping me from giving up on short stories altogether, beyond the fact that I genuinely think I have some neat ideas in the ones I'm submitting/revising, is the advice from Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. He points out how success frequently comes just after the moment of deepest crisis, when the successful person was on the verge of quitting. It may be silly, but it's what keeps me submitting the stories that I really think have potential - the next magazine I submit it to may be the one that takes it and sets me one step further on the road to success.

On the other hand, I don't really read a lot of short fiction (although I do have a collection of Ted Chiang stories on my Kindle, which I bought with the intention of studying the form from a writer who's widely held to be a master). I do read novels and watch movies though - so it feels like that's where I should be focusing my craft.

The main problem, when making decisions like this, is avoiding going in circles (as I just did above). Whichever happens, I can at least assure myself that I'm working toward the goal of living off my writing (and amassing immeasurable wealth and power in the process, of course). And as long as I'm working on it, I can hope to come back to the short stories or novels if my improving craft allows me to crack the problems that previously stopped me completely.

Fingers crossed!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Capital in the 21st Century: Using Piketty to Explain Soccer's Rising Inequality

Had a funny experience the other day at a conference I went to for work. During one of the networking breaks, I got to chatting with a Swedish guy about the not-particularly-work-related topic of soccer. I interrogated him about the state of the Swedish league, and was pleased to learn that unlike the bigger leagues in Europe, Sweden's isn't a one-, two- or three-horse race. Apparently (a quick look at Wikipedia has borne this out) seven different teams have won it since 2004.

Contrast this with the English Premier League, which has been won by three teams in that same period (Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea). In fact, since the English top-flight became the Premiership (and then the Premier League) in the 1992-93 season, it's been won by only five teams overall (Arsenal and Blackburn being the others). In Scotland, you have to go all the way back to 1985 to find a winner other than Celtic or Rangers.

Naturally, we didn't go that deep into the stats (although I'm sure we would have, if cell reception in the hotel had been better). But we did register the comparison, and the conversation swung into another direction when I noted that this concentration of titles, and the bad run of form Swedish teams have had in the Champions League, was just the same hollowing-out of the middle class that we've been seeing in, well, every single other facet of life.

Naturally this brought in discussions of Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century. Even though neither of us had read it, we marveled at how it's become beach-reading for a goodly number of the Western world's citizens, and at how applicable it is even beyond the normal realm of personal and national finances.

Because it's certainly true of soccer - leagues were generally more equal (er, Scotland aside), and so were the European club championships. But no club outside the top four leagues (England, Spain, Germany and Italy) has won the Champions League since 2004, when Porto won it, but even that was an outlier - the last one before them was Ajax in 1995. Not only did the title go to teams from seven different countries during the 1990s, but in 1991 the winner was Red Star Belgrade, of what was then Yugoslavia.

The fall of Communism may have been expected to reap benefits for Eastern Europe, but it certainly hasn't done so in football.

Contrast this with the Super Bowl: eight teams have won it since 2004, showing that the NFL has been even more equitable recently, as six teams won it in the 1990s. American sportswriters like to harp on this meme of the "socialist" NFL with the "capitalist" European leagues, but it's hard to fault them when you look at numbers like those. US leagues don't feature relegation, for one thing, and the last-placed team typically gets the first choice of the new crop of players coming out of colleges.

The interesting thing, at least in the Premier League, is that while the bottom three teams get relegated, they typically also get a bigger payout than the teams who placed just above them, who don't get any cash at all. This effectively makes relegation from the Premier League more desirable than hovering somewhere in the middle - and as evidence you could point to the fact that, of the promoted teams, one typically stays up, only to go down again a year or two later. This has been the case almost every year since the Premier League started up - of the three teams that get relegated, only two were among the teams that won promotion at the previous season's end.

You might argue that this polarization is good for fans - after all, it means that top talent like Ronaldo, Messi and Rooney (on those now-vanishingly rare occasions when Manchester United gets into the European tournaments) get to play against one another, making for more unforgettable games. Except that, at least when teams from the same country play each other, the result is typically more likely to be a low-scoring game or a dour 0-0 draw.

It's also bad for fans of teams from the smaller leagues. As my colleague pointed out, one of the reasons the Swedish league is so equitable is that each year the winner relies on a couple of standout young players. However, at the end of the season these players get lured away to a bigger, foreign league, where they typically warm the bench and are never heard from again. This means a league winner can't capitalize (there's that word again) on its success, whether at home or abroad.

Soccer, it turns out, is an excellent system for studying these effects - you can see how quickly a massive infusion of wealth turns into success, and how quickly success feeds on itself: look at both Chelsea and Manchester City, neither of whom had won the English league in about 50 years, before their respective sugar daddies showed up.

The trick now is for economists and governments to turn this knowledge into fixes that have real-world benefits. After all, the rise of inequality in soccer wouldn't be so frustrating if it weren't happening in parallel in people's daily lives.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Same Old Song

Because I'm something of an obsessive person, every once in a while I put myself through the process of listening to my entire music collection on iTunes. It's something I started doing back in college, when my music collection was smaller (and yet paradoxically, less portable): at the start of each quarter, I'd listen to all of my CDs in alphabetical order by artist, and I'd listen to each artists' albums in chronological order (because listening to all my Blur or Smiths CDs in alphabetical order is just crazy, amirite?).

This was workable because I only dragged around about 100 CDs in my carrying case, and because I listened to music constantly while I drove or studied. I kept up with this until I got iTunes and an iPod in 2006, although I'd shifted to doing it yearly by then. And the advantage of doing it on iTunes was that I could then keep track of which songs I listened to the most (told you I was obsessive).

The problem was, each year the whole sweep of my collection took longer and longer, because I was buying CDs pretty much constantly. I came to downloads pretty late, and most of those I actually did through Amazon or Spotify, rather than iTunes - no particular reason, except that after I got an Android phone I could put those MP3s on it, but not the files that iTunes converts into (iOS is a closed ecosystem, my ass).

Eventually I gave up on it, when I decided it was getting a little silly (and taking ages). The last time I did it was 2011, when it took almost six months.

Until this year! I figured moving across the world was a big life event, so I decided to mark it by listening to the whole collection again. And this time it took a full nine months.

That was partly because my music collection is a lot larger than it was three years ago (thanks to that full collection of 200+ Bach cantatas I got for Christmas one year), but also because listening to music has ceased to become an automatic activity for me. iTunes lets you keep track of a lot of metadata, including the last time you played a song. A lot of my music has sat unlistened to since that previous sweep, so I could see that at the time I was playing music early in the morning, when I was getting ready for work, and late in the evening as I spent my customary hour of reading before bed with my laptop on.

This year, I noticed, my music listening was limited to pretty much the weekends and a couple hours each night after work (when I wasn't watching Netflix). You'd think that with my increased driving I'd be able to make up for that, but no - my car's CD player is broken, and the car's so old anyway that there's not much point in fixing it.

But the kicker is that in the last nine months or so I haven't bought any new music. Sure, I received a couple of CDs for Christmas, but haven't felt the need to go looking for anything new since then - I'd heard "Unbelievers" from Vampire Weekend's new album on the radio a bunch, and figured I'd pick that up, but it appears I'm one step ahead of myself, as I discovered it was already in my iTunes when I got to V in my collection.

It's a little depressing when I think about it. I've got music to soundtrack pretty much every era of my life - high school and earlier, my first year of college and my last, the years after I graduated, and the year I spent here in Palo Alto temping and applying to grad schools, for example. But nothing really stands out from this year, which suggests that 2014 will kind of occupy a blank spot in my memory in future. Apart from that Vampire Weekend song, there hasn't been much on the radio, because like me, Live 105 is clearly more interested in music from the 90s than in finding anything new (burn!).

And yes, that's probably the real issue here. A few years ago, around the time of that really terrible Grizzy Bear concert, I got bored with what was going on in indie rock. There's only so much you can do with an electric guitar, bass, drums and/or synths, and the bands of the last couple of years have been on a crusade to show the limitations of that combo. Even (especially) the bands that seemed so promising in 2000-2005, like the Libertines or Bloc Party, have had so much trouble with making their subsequent albums interesting, that I've frankly given up on them. The last new band I got excited about was the Hold Steady, but they're hardly new, are they?

So is it any wonder that I gave up on indie in favor of classic rock, hip hop and classical? The problem is that, as I said, I'm not going automatically to listen to music whenever I'm home. Even Spotify has turned into just another place to keep playlists of stuff I already like (and don't try to convince me that Pandora or Songza are suitable replacements; I want to listen to the song in my head, not something vaguely similar thrown up by the computer algorithm).

Music is just hard to keep up with, now that I haven't been paying attention for a while. I could read Pitchfork every day, but it doesn't seem all that friendly to someone like me - lord knows I'm not averse to left-field stuff, but at least in the guitar-based stuff, there's a big gap between what I find innovative and what they find innovative (I swear I'll strangle the next person who says Grizzly Bear's albums are "composed", like classical music).

(As an aside, no, I don't hate Grizzly Bear - just their third album. I realized the distinction when I got to G this year - Yellow House and Veckatimest are fine, but Shields is a 48-minute sleeping pill.)

I suppose this shift in my attitude toward music is just part of the aging process. I've heard that you always stick with the music you loved when you were 24, an age that, let's be honest, has pretty much already disappeared from my rear-view mirror. But I just wish there was some motherlode of exciting, new music that I could discover - previous discoveries were Britpop in the 90s, the wave of indie that the Strokes kicked off in 2001, and the stuff coming out of the Midwest and Brooklyn from around 2006-07, like the Hold Steady and Sufjan Stevens.

I think those of us that really care about music are drawn to the stuff that tells us we're not alone, that someone else has the same feelings, fears and doubts and pleasures, as we do. It'd be nice to find someone new who can tell me that, rather than revisiting the stuff I already know I like.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Excelsior: Where Have All the Good Comics Gone?

I used to be into comics, but about ten years ago I gave up on them, for reasons of budget and limited space to store them (this was the period when I moved from Southend to California to New York and back to London). At the time I was reading more of the post-superhero stuff, like Preacher, the Authority and Planetary, but as those ended or turned shit or moved to uncertain publishing schedules, I let them drop off.

And on the occasions when I'd flip through a Superman or X-Men comic, I'd be reminded why I stopped - they were still telling the same stories they'd been telling in the 90s. And I've never liked that argument that comics are for kids, but the really mainstream stuff hadn't gotten any more sophisticated, just more violent.

So I remain a casual, dipper-into rather than a proper fan. It seems a little odd to say, seeing as how comics are everywhere on the pop culture landscape. Of the four movies I've seen at the cinema this year, three were based on Marvel characters (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy). I gave up on Agents of SHIELD but started on Arrow, and still have seasons 2-5 of the Walking Dead to catch up on. And one of the videogames on my shelf, waiting to be finished, is Batman: Arkham City.

It's clear that even if I'm not reading the source material, I'm still reasonably conversant with it, even if I can't name the current line-up of the X-Men or the Justice League. So why am I not interested in what's going on in comics, apart from that stuff I've listed above?

DC is probably the main culprit for my lack of interest. I went through a big DC phase in the early to mid-90s, between when I discovered Keith Giffen's Justice League run and when I discovered classic SF novels. They didn't always have the flashiest artists, the way first Marvel and then Image did, but they had the best writers. DC, remember, was the publisher of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan and Garth Ennis's Preacher. When they bought Wildstorm from Jim Lee, they gave a home to talents like Alan Moore, who revitalized the hell out of Lee's off-brand X-Men knockoff WildC.A.T.s and turned the imprint into a home for some of the best superhero comics on the scene at the time.

At around the same time, I'd say 1999 to 2001, Marvel was coming out of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and other disasters, and had just promoted Joe Quesada to editor-in-chief, on the strength of his run on Daredevil under the Marvel Knights sub-imprint. All of a sudden they were taking risks with their stories, and attracting talent like Garth Ennis for the rebooted, back-to-basics Punisher.

This all went with my theory that the pendulum of creativity would swing back and forth between DC and Marvel at the end and beginning of each decade. 1999 was when Warren Ellis was doing Transmet and turning StormWatch into the Authority and Planetary; a couple of years later, Garth Ennis was on the Punisher, telling some of the character's best stories, and Marvel had introduced MAX, a mature-readers label to explore more adult aspects of the characters.

A decade before, DC had been publishing the Sandman, Hellblazer and the rebooted Doom Patrol; by the early 90s, the pendulum had shifted to Marvel with Jim Lee's run on the X-Men, and would probably have continued that way, if Lee and a bunch of other artists hadn't defected to create their own characters at Image.

But now it feels like DC's stuck having a universe-wide event every summer, and is rebooting its continuity every couple of years. They went from Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, which was meant to corral the preceding 50 years into a single timeline, to Zero Hour in 1994, which intended to clean up the inconsistencies that had cropped up here and there. But then they had the Identity Crisis event, followed by Infinite Crisis in 2005 and then Final Crisis in 2008, which seems to have reset continuity to something resembling the pre-1985 continuity. These days, very little that I see from DC is in any way appealing - it's all the same stuff that I was seeing in the 90s.

Marvel also seems to have toned down their risk-taking, in favor of generating properties for Hollywood. I'm aware of the new female Thor and black Spider-Man, of course (the latter being only in the spin-off Ultimate Spider-Man continuity), but then you also get the brou-ha-ha over hiring Italian erotic comics artist Milo Manara to lovingly render Spider-Woman's butt, so it's clear the House of Ideas isn't firing on all cylinders.

These days the creativity (and the creator-owned work) seems to have all migrated to Image, which is actually a pretty positive development, since they're no longer doing knockoff versions of Marvel teams. And I guess that's not unreasonable to expect - after 70 years (for Superman or Batman) or 40 years (for Spider-Man and the X-Men) of publishing, it becomes harder to tell interesting, novel stories. It probably helps that most of what Image publishes isn't meant to run forever - I suppose the Walking Dead will end when Rick Grimes dies, for instance.

But it's a shame to see the two biggest players in comics reduced to such a void of creativity. All their efforts seem to be going, as I said, into movies and TV, with mixed results: Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight was great, but Man of Steel was little more than a two-hour headache. And Guardians of the Galaxy felt like an acid trip, but with a less-coherent plot. I could go on about the various TV shows both companies have spawned, but suffice to say those are generally hit and miss.

Or maybe I'm just an old fart lamenting that comics today aren't as good as the ones I enjoyed when I was in middle school or high school. It just seems to me that, in this environment of near constant entertainment, kids who want a good story aren't going to comics - because the good stuff is being repackaged (sometimes disastrously) for the movies.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

#Indyref: They Think It's All Over

So Scotland has voted "no" to independence from the UK. Alex Salmond has resigned, the rest of the UK is celebrating (apart from the small bits that are rioting) and talk has turned to "devo max", which means further devolution for the UK's constituent parts. All in all, it's been a pretty exciting week in British politics, and for nationalist politics in general.

Not being Scottish, the vote didn't mean a great deal to me either way. On the other hand, as someone who only managed to escape the Empire's clutches less than a year ago, I could hardly begrudge the Scots wanting to do the same thing. That is to say, had I been a Scottish resident, I'd probably have voted yes.

More seriously, I've been hearing about the Scots' march toward devolution and referendum for over ten years, so it was interesting to finally get to an inflection point, where the parties involved would actually get to argue their respective cases and the people would get to decide. Looking at it from a world-historical perspective, it was also interesting to imagine how peacefully the process would play out - after all, as recently as 2010 Adam Roberts's New Model Army imagined that Scottish independence would be accompanied by bloodshed.

But I find it interesting that the question can even be raised. History is full of groups of people fighting to be free of a particular colonial or ruling power - having the question settled by the people has been tried, to my knowledge, only in very few places (Quebec's the only one that springs to mind right now).

I also believe the question will come up again. From what I read, this time the question was defeated by older voters (check this link from the Guardian for a demographic breakdown), and by the questions that were raised around currency and long-term economic viability. I can imagine future generations of Scottish leaders being able to answer these questions better - this is likely a big part of why Alex Salmond has resigned, so that the drive for independence won't be held back by being forever associated only with his name.

The other interesting point is the expected further devolution, what's being called "devo max". Some were saying this third option should have been on the ballot to start with - it's unclear to me whether Salmond or David Cameron is to blame for it not being included, but it looks like it'll happen anyway.

I'll be curious to see what form devo max takes: whether it means more oil revenues to Scotland, and whether it will mean a regional parliament for England (which is the only home nation that doesn't have one). I'll also be curious to see what comes of devolution and moves for independence if the UK ends up voting to leave the European Union.

I expected that the UK leaving the EU would be good for an independent Scotland - but in either case, I'm hoping whoever spearheaded the "Better Together" campaign this year will be available in 2017 to do the same job and keep Britain linked to the continent. Because that's a form of devolution that really would be disastrous.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Filling Up On Singapore

As I've noted elsewhere on this blog, I'm a big fan of Asia. I've been three times now, twice to Southeast Asia and once to Hong Kong, and I remain as fascinated as I ever was. My latest visit was to Singapore, because I figured it would be an easy trip (I was traveling solo, and not staying with locally based friends), and English is widely spoken. A number of friends, coworkers and relatives had suggested I'd have trouble filling a full week there, but I'm happy to report that for an initial vacation, a week is the perfect amount of time in which to see Singapore. I could even have hung around an extra day or two.

I'd say I managed to catch a good number of the tourist sights, like the Singapore National Museum or the Botanical Garden. I also spent a lot of time walking, clocking several 12-mile days, visiting the various ethnic neighborhoods that make up the city.

View of Little India from my hotel

Sometimes this made for some nice juxtapositions - for example, the street behind the Sultan Mosque in the Arab Street neighborhood is apparently where Singapore's punks hang out on a Friday night, and is also home to a number of trendy coffee shops and cocktail bars. My hotel in Little India was also right next to a mosque, while the main Hindu temple actually sits in Chinatown. This all reflects Singapore's past as a meeting place for traders from all over the world, whether Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arab or Western.

Arab St and the Sultan Mosque

From the very start I found myself comparing the place to Hong Kong, which is the only other large Asian city I've visited (when I went to Thailand four years ago, it was to the resort island of Phuket, rather than Bangkok). My Lonely Planet city guide had led me to believe that it would be pretty much the same, but I found that wasn't the case - although Singapore is physically smaller than Hong Kong (276 square miles, vs 426 square miles, including 19 square miles of water), it felt a lot more open, with more trees and wider avenues. And while Hong Kong had one large tract of parkland (at least that I saw), Singapore had several, from the Botanical Gardens, which are home to a postage stamp's worth of original rainforest, to the Bukit Timah nature preserve, which I regrettably missed on this trip.

It was also a little more downmarket in certain ways, which is both good and bad. Good, because it was less full of ridiculously expensive European brands crowding every single mall; bad, because it meant that whenever I ventured into one of these malls, more often than not I had to wade through KFC, Burger King and Starbucks to find something local. Although I will cop to having had lunch at UK grilled chicken chain Nando's while I was there, reasoning that it wasn't something I could easily get at home.

Orchard Road and its malls

That said, the food situation was absolutely amazing - pretty much every mall, no matter how posh, had a local-style food court, with each stall serving local dishes like laksa, nasi goreng and Hokkien mee. And just as remarkably, the prices in the posh malls' food courts weren't much higher than those in the older, less posh malls.

It certainly takes away some of the sting of paying for accommodation or booze in the city, both of which are pretty expensive. Beers in certain places set me back more than S$10 (which is probably a little less than US$10, but I assumed parity while I was there, to keep myself from blowing too much cash), and a Singapore sling at Raffles will set you back S$27 (plus tax). I assume being up there with the Scandinavian countries on the Human Development Index means they have to charge similar rates for alcohol, although given that I don't believe the locals are such big drinkers, it seems more like a tax on foreigners.

A courtyard at Raffles

I did see quite a few foreigners while I was there, although I did note with pride whenever I was the only Caucasian in a food court or on a bus. The split between tourists and workers was probably about even, especially in "downtown" spots like Raffles Place, and I can admit that I did imagine myself living the expat life there, at least for a while - it helped that I met up with a locally based sales guy from my company (a Singaporean), and one of our stops that evening was a rooftop bar in the financial district that looked out over the entire city.

As far as the locals, I wouldn't say I got a lot of chances to interact with them (being a rather shy and retiring type), although whenever I had to ask someone for directions, they were super-polite, very helpful and spoke excellent English. I'm given to understand that this particular trifecta isn't all that common in East Asia, for example in Tokyo. And I'm reminded of an incident in a 7-11 in Phuket where the shop clerk tried to charge me twice for the same drink, because I came back to the counter a minute after having paid, and she didn't recognize me. It took one of her colleagues, who clearly understood more English than she did, to explain that I'd already paid.

View of Changi Point from Pulau Ubin

I feel it would be remiss not to mention the political dimension to Singapore here, which is generally justly derided by Westerners (apart from a curiously tone-deaf Lonely Planet reviewer a few years ago who, comparing Singapore with Bangkok, suggested that democracy was a little overrated if it meant the chaos and dirt of Bangkok; my response is that neither country is really that democratic). I'm aware that Singaporeans are pretty apathetic to politics, and that Lee Kuan Yew (or Harry, as Paul Theroux always refers to him) has held a pretty steady grip on the place.

However, if it is that authoritarian, they certainly hide it well. I'm intellectually aware that there were surveillance cameras all over the place - on my first day I got a bit paranoid about what would happen to me if I dropped a plastic cup in the wrong recycling bin - but it felt less intrusive than the surveillance apparatus in London, for example. What I did notice was a certain infantilization of the place, for instance in the ads on the MRT, that suggested enforced puritanism. Contrast the generally insipid bookstores of Singapore with the newsstand I perused on my layover in Tokyo, which featured bondage porn magazines at around eye level, something you wouldn't see even here in the US or in the UK.

Returning to slightly less salacious shores, I thought the dress of the locals, particularly Chinese office workers, was reminiscent of the 1960s - white shirts and slacks for men, floral one-piece dresses and high heels for women. I kept wondering at that, until I decided that maybe it was because the same government had been in power since the 1960s, unconsciously enforcing a resistance to change among the city's adults. The college students and teenagers, by contrast, looked pretty much the same as they do here in the Bay Area, although I was intrigued to see that the more fashion-forward ladies of Singapore were favoring enormous baseball caps.

Hindu temple in Chinatown

To sum up, I really enjoyed the week I spent there, and as I say, I wouldn't have minded a little more time to keep looking around. If there's one thing that appealed to me about the place above all others, it was the diversity of it - the fact that Chinese, Malays and Tamils have come together to create a society on the island, and use English as their lingua franca, makes it feel impressively cosmopolitan, and possibly more welcoming than Hong Kong. The fact that it's rich also meant there weren't so many of those couples composed of enormous, old white men with extremely young and tiny local girls that you seem to see so often in Thailand.

And if Singapore doesn't have the personality it used to, when the river was home to warehouses and sampans plying their trade twenty-four hours a day, its personality has receded to the ethnic neighborhoods. Visitors who go looking for it will be rewarded.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Quick One While I'm Away

Not that I'm away yet, but it'll be a quick post this week, because I've been doing productive stuff like playing Skyrim and going to 49ers games. But I just wanted to give a quick rundown of one or two things I'm planning on doing on the blog soonish, and note that I'll be away the next two Sundays, as I'm flying off to Singapore for a week or so next Sunday.

Singapore will probably be the subject of an upcoming blog - since I set up my trip, a lot of people I know have said I'll struggle to find a week's worth of things to do there. I'm not so sure, and I want to (hopefully) prove them wrong. And if I'm bored the entire week, I'll report that on the blog too. Possibly even from an internet cafe in Singapore.

The other thing I'm sort of thinking of doing is a little essay on my train trip from London to Turin, which I took earlier this year. I took some notes while I was doing it, and hopefully I'll get something interesting out of it.

That's probably enough for now - I'm looking forward to the trip, and hope to spend the week getting nice and ready for it! See you soon!


Saturday, 16 August 2014

Thoughts on the Start of the 2014-15 Premiere League

The Premier League season started up again today, and I can't deny a twinge of nostalgia (you might even call it homesickness) for my days in London. It's always an exciting time of year - the football starts up again, and with it stuff like the BBC's Match of the Day, and all of the fantasy leagues from the various newspapers.

I have to count Match of the Day as one of the things I miss most, along with bacon sandwiches and Big Waterstones, the one on Piccadilly. For those who don't know, it's a roundup of the day's Premier League action, showing all the highlights from all the games, along with commentary from the BBC's regular team of top soccer pundits (and Alan Shearer, who always seems to be invited back).

It's kind of an institution, as it airs pretty late on Saturday nights, and on Sundays to show the highlights from that day's matches. This is actually pretty savvy programming by the BBC, if you think about it. Because chucking-out time at the nation's pubs is around 11pm, and MOTD usually starts between 10-11pm, it's a great come-down for a night out, and a chance to sober up with some water or something before you go to bed. Or, if you've been in all night, it's that perfect excuse to stay up just a little later, in case the movies on Channel 4 or Channel 5 aren't that appealing.

Now, it hasn't always been on the BBC, however - for a year or two, back in the early 2000's, rival network ITV got the rights to show the Premier League highlights, but I still remember the celebrations when it went back to the BBC. And despite not having grown up with MOTD, it felt right to me even then, if for no other reason than the iconic theme music:

A big reason for my nostalgia is that watching MOTD reminds me of the first time I lived in England. I was in Southend, just an hour east of London, and getting acquainted with the UK for real, after having visited several times in the previous six years.

One of the first things I learned then is that weekends are different in the UK than they are here. Here, everything's open pretty much as usual on Saturday and Sunday, but there it's almost impossible to get a haircut or a dinner of fish and chips on a Sunday, because those shops are all closed. Supermarkets and department stores will open before noon, but won't let you buy anything until the clock strikes 12 (seriously, I once saw a sales assistant at Debenhams refuse to even tell a customer where something was, because it was too early). Some shops proudly announce that they're open on Saturday, as if it's some new-fangled idea they've just come up with.

What this means is that you have to be super-organized if you want to get anything done on weekends. Either that, or you just sit at home and read the paper or keep an eye on the football scores as they come in. I do remember a lot of very pleasantly lazy Saturday and Sunday mornings where I did just that - leafing through the Guardian while listening to Radio 2 in the living room, with the sun shining on the Thames Estuary... It's hard to beat that.

Now, this will take a little explaining, but another of my pleasures was staying in on a Saturday afternoon and watching the scores come in on Sky Sports News. Sky Sports News didn't feature any game footage whatsoever (because evidently any trace of a man kicking a ball would have cost them billions in revenue from their pay-TV subscriptions).

What it did have was a newsroom full of men in suits and varying levels of agitation, relaying what was happening at each ground across the country. While Jeff Stelling read out the latest scores and scorers, you'd sometimes hear someone shouting in the background, as one of the presenters' teams had just scored. Occasionally they'd cut to Chris Kamara standing on the edges of a stadium, with the tiniest smear of green behind him, offering some hot air or other about what the result meant for the relegation race in the Second Division, as was.

But the best part was at the end of the afternoon, when they had someone read out all the scores, from each league. If you're a fan of mythical place-names, as I am, then you'd be in heaven - Sky went all the way down to the Conference, relaying what Hereford United and Shrewsbury Town had accomplished that day. And then the announcer would move to the farthest reaches of the Scottish Leagues, followed by the Welsh Premier. And every week - EVERY SINGLE WEEK - on hearing the results from Welsh team TNS, Jeff Stelling would crack the same joke: "They must be dancing in the streets of TNS tonight."

Admittedly, one of the main reasons for watching Sky Sports News on a Saturday afternoon was to keep an eye on my team in the office soccer fantasy league, which was rather competitive. But I don't know if that makes the preceding more or less sad, so I'll just move straight along.

I guess the reason I'm so nostalgic for those days, despite living in a dump and working in the worst company ever, is that I felt I could blow an afternoon that way, and not worry about whether I was Getting Things Done or anything like that. I sometimes berate myself a little bit for not having gotten my act together until around 2012 (when I started reading all the self-help and time-management books), but on the other hand, it is nice to remember the Saturdays and Sundays where I could unselfconsciously stay in bed all day, only venturing out for a burger or to do my washing at the laundromat.

Now I do silly things like sign up for half-marathons and try to keep my house clean. I guess that's growing up, but it's kind of a shame sometimes that as we get certain things more in control, we have less time to ourselves, instead of more. I feel like it should be the other way around.

At any rate, I'm unable to catch MOTD this season (unless someone wants to explain how I can torrent it), but at least I'll still be able to follow the Premier League - I've signed up for another office fantasy league. And it looks, from this first matchday, that I'm doing terribly. Nice to know some things never change.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Like pretty much everybody, I've been in shock the last couple of days, since hearing about Robin Williams's death. I hadn't followed his career much in recent years, so I didn't know about his personal struggles - as a result, the news that he was gone, ripped away by his own hand, caught me completely by surprise.

But he was an important figure from my childhood, having brought to life some amazing characters, so I'd like to offer my condolences to his family and friends, and for what it's worth, to let them know they aren't alone in mourning the loss of a talent like his.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

How I Met Your Mother: The Comic Novel Comes to TV

For the last few months, I've been obsessively hoovering up episodes of How I Met Your Mother on Netflix. I was spurred by sorta-kinda-almost spoilers that I absorbed by seeing headlines about the series finale, which aired in May. I had also admired the show from afar, as it were, for a few years - when I lived in London, it was on even more frequently than the Big Bang Theory (which is saying something), and the two shows were generally paired together on the same channels (Channel Four, E4, etc). I'd even started watching it sort of regularly when Season 8 came to the UK, so I caught the broad strokes of what was happening as it led into its last season.

It's kind of an odd show. As Donna Bowman notes in her series of episode recaps for the AV Club, it's a hybrid between the traditional sitcom (like BBT) and the newer single-camera sitcom (like Community, Modern Family, etc) - likely a result of the structure, in which the main character recounts the titular story to his kids, decades later. This allows for a lot of flashbacks, flash-forwards and other time- and camera-related shenanigans.

The structure also means that spoilers are kind of irrelevant. As I said above, the headlines that came out around the time the finale aired have given me a pretty good idea of how Ted's search turns out... and, perhaps oddly, it makes me want to see how they get there. Back in 2012 I touched on the whole spoiler controversy that we're having in the culture right now, and a month or so ago, again on the AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff spoke out against what he calls "spoiler paranoia", by noting in his first sentence that Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad.

If that last sentence pisses you off, I'm sorry (I'm not sorry). HIMYM is another show that effectively defies spoilers, by showing you - through its title and framing sequence - that Ted will meet the love of his life and have the two kids sitting on his couch; and throughout its nine seasons, it also states pretty much outright that none of Ted's girlfriends are the mother. The best example is in the pilot, where he describes meeting the perfect girl, has an amazing date with her and tells her he loves her... only to reveal to his kids in the last frame that she's their Aunt Robin.

I'm still impressed by how well that works, especially if my suspicions about the finale are correct. I also love the more minor spoilers that crop up every now and then. In an episode positing that single people automatically have more stamina for nights out than coupled-up people, we have a flash-forward to a wedding where Lily and Marshall leave early, but Ted and Robin decide to stay later. Except this is in Season 2, when they're a couple - so the writers are effectively telling you a month or two in advance that the relationship is doomed.

That's the reason that I call the show a novel for TV. I don't know exactly how far ahead the creators, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, plotted the show, but however they did it they managed to build a clockwork universe where, so far, pretty much everything that's been teased has paid off. It rewards close watching, for example by having Ted enter the bar wearing a dress in one episode, and not explaining what that was all about until a season or two later.

Like any good novel, the characters are also well-drawn, and generally more than one-note stereotypes. The closest to a one-note character that the show has is Barney, but in early seasons he demonstrates impressive, unhinted-at depths to his character, and then in later seasons he starts to grow out of the sleazy lothario persona we're initially introduced to. My favorite character has to be Marshall, though, because he's at once the most grown-up of the characters, by being the first to marry and have kids, and also the most child-like, with his belief in stuff like ghosts and Bigfoot. I also love his relationship with Lily, as it's pretty rare for a sitcom to show a married couple as enabling besties rather than a bored and frustrated couple (ie, "eh, the old ball-and-chain, am I right?"). That's pretty refreshing.

So I'm at Season 8 now, and coming up to the end of what's available on Netflix. Season 9 doesn't show up on DVD until 23 September, so I'm hoping the episodes will be available for streaming around that time too. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, don't tell me what happens! The show may defy spoilers, but I do want to see how we get to the end.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Importance of Authenticity

I'm currently reading Sushi and Beyond, by the British food/travel writer Michael Booth, wherein he travels to Japan to learn about the food culture there. It's a fascinating book (I'm about halfway through), which takes in both the basic building blocks of Japanese cuisine, such as dashi, as well as the more esoteric stuff, like nagashi-somen, a noodle dish prepared by launching a handful of somen down a river to the waiting diners. I'm less taken with his weird racism against Italians, but so be it, I guess.

It's also full of insights into how Japanese food is truly meant to be served. For instance, apparently miso soup belongs at the end of a meal, rather than the beginning - the way it's served in the West is how Chinese or Korean restaurant owners do it. It's a little like how Anglo-Saxon people serve salad as an appetizer, but for Italians it's served after the main course.

Naturally, when I read this little factoid about miso soup I got excited, and imagined myself saving my miso until the end of a Japanese meal - not to impress the staff with my authentic knowledge (the folks who run my local bento place in Mountain View speak Chinese to each other), but to experience the food the way it's meant to be experienced.

I can be kind of a douche like that sometimes.

The next thing that occurred to me was that saving my miso soup for last would probably mean drinking cold miso soup, which sounds kind of gross, and not particularly authentic either. And with that thought came the realization that it probably doesn't actually matter that much.

Any Japanese chefs who read this blog have probably removed me from their RSS readers by now, while the less insane among the remaining readers is likely wondering what the big deal is. But I sometimes think we're a little too obsessed with authenticity, and maybe a good meal (or book, or movie, or other experience) doesn't need to be so completely true to life that any variation is immediately suspect.

Here's another quick example: there's a Chinese market on the corner of the block where I work. In addition to Asian groceries and cheap little tea-sets, it also sells little statues. Some are likenesses of the Qin First Emperor's terracotta soldiers; others are of Hanuman the monkey-god, or of various other bodhisattvas.

They're clearly not genuine, I think every time I walk by. But what does "genuine" even mean in this context? The terracotta warriors are clearly not the ones dug from the earth in Xi'an - they're too small, and even if they were real, exporting them would probably carry the death penalty in China. Seems unlikely a bunch of hot 2,000 year old artifacts would find themselves in a shop window on Castro Street.

As for the Hanuman statues (which I think would enliven up my desk, if anyone's trying to think what to buy me for Christmas), I assume those are made in some factory in Macau, but if you're Buddhist, does that mean you can't pray to them? I don't get the sense the owners are trying to pass them off as genuine Ming-era statues or whatever (I have my suspicions about another shop just up the road, though).

I suppose it's the same with Christian artifacts - is a crucifix assembled in China last year less important than one made in Venice four hundred years ago? If you want them as decoration, maybe the older versions are more impressive, as far as bragging rights go. But if you want to use them as they were meant to be used - as devotional objects - the new ones probably do the job just as well.

The difference is probably that the Hanuman statues, like the Japanese meals, come from a different culture than the one us Westerners grew up with, no matter how comfortable we are with other cuisines or religions. It's easy to feel clever and worldly when you, say, get really good at using chopsticks, and it's just as easy to get all snotty and remind people that Thai food isn't eaten with chopsticks, so the fork and knife are fine (yep, I do that one all the time).

In the end the important thing is really how good the meal was, right? The fact that an authentic Japanese meal features miso soup at the end doesn't invalidate all the really good (but Westernized) meals I've had where it was served first. The experience may be better with the more authentic version; or it might not be. Same with those dodgy Hanuman statues - it may be cooler to have one that comes from the 14th century, but for my purposes (having a conversation piece on my desk) the one assembled in Macau two months ago does the job just as well.

Which isn't to say that I don't want to experience the real thing, at least as regards the food (I'm not quite rich enough to blow loads of cash on Buddhist statuary). It's good to know the difference between the authentic and the fake, just so you can say you've had it.

And honestly? I'm still really taken with that nagashi-somen river noodles idea. There must be some way to get that here, even if it isn't exactly perfect.