Sunday, 25 May 2014

Champions League 2014: A Cruel Old Game

So the Champions League season of 2013-14 has now ended, marking the end of the wider football season throughout Europe. Real Madrid beat local rivals Atletico Madrid 4-1, although even knowing that the game went to extra time obscures just how heart-breaking that scoreline must be to Atletico fans.

I'll admit I didn't catch all of it. I was at an SF convention in Santa Clara (Baycon 2014, to be precise), so I arrived at the hotel shortly after kick-off and had to go to a writing workshop before the end of the match, although I did hang around long enough to see Real equalize.

Long story short, then, is this: Atletico scored relatively early on, hung on until about the 94th minute (the ref tacked on an extra 5 minutes), and then Sergio Ramos equalized, sending the game into overtime. I was pretty surprised to see the final score after my workshop ended - I wouldn't have expected Real's players to have that much left in them.

So, in keeping with previous blogs about the Champions League final, are there any lessons to be drawn from this year's big match?

Well, to start, my prediction from last year of an era of German dominance seems not to have come true. I'd suggested that because Bayern Munich had made it to two consecutive finals (and another in 2010), the German league was in the ascendant, replacing the English Premier League, which had pretty much dominated the final every year since 2005. It's hard to draw conclusions from a single match, but given how Bayern rolled over when confronted by Real Madrid in the semi-finals, I'm finding it hard to continue arguing that Germany has caught up to the English or Spanish leagues in terms of quality (with heavy heart, I'm forced to admit that the Italian league has clearly been overtaken by the Germans).

Let's not forget that Bayern's win against Borussia Dortmund last year, while emphatic enough, was still only against a local competitor - its two previous attempts at the Champions League final, against Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, ended in defeat. So, like I was arguing about English dominance two years ago, German dominance in the Champions League final comes with something of an asterisk.

On the other hand, there were two teams from Spain in this year's final, and three in the semi-finals (Atletico saw off Barcelona, much as they did in the league; Barcelona failed to catch a single break this year, as they also lost to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey). Moreover, Sevilla also won the Europa League, making it a very good year for Spanish football.

I don't know if this means we're in for a period of Spanish dominance, though. Atletico had an amazing year, but - without being as knowledgeable about Spanish football as the great Sid Lowe - I suspect they slipped into the breach caused by a Barcelona team that appears to be on the wane. Barcelona and Real Madrid are two clubs with extraordinarily deep pockets, which Atletico may not be able to match - they may find themselves consolidating much slower than their rivals.

I don't want to take anything away from Atletico's achievement, of course. The Spanish league was much closer this year than it's been in years, and Atletico did well to hold their nerve in the final few games and see off their rivals, particularly in the last couple of weeks of the campaign (in marked contrast to Liverpool, who could have won their first league title in years if it hadn't been for... Crystal Palace). If they lost in the Champions League final to Real, well... a tournament final isn't like a league match. You have to be able to keep running for those extra 30 minutes, and clearly Real Madrid has more stamina for that kind of thing.

So the lesson learned is that Real Madrid is still one of the giants of European football, but we knew that already. Bayern Munich may have run away with the league title in Germany, but they'll have to strengthen considerably to challenge Real next year. Barcelona is also going to continue to compete, although under their new coach they'll likely be in a rebuilding phase next season. It won't be as dramatic a rebuilding phase as Manchester United's, so Barcelona will surely continue to figure in the knockout rounds of the tournament.

As for the English clubs, I can't really see them storming the tournament next season - Manchester City's record isn't great, neither is Arsenal's, and Liverpool hasn't played in the Champions League since the 2009-10 season (and hasn't appeared in Europe at all since 2012-13). Chelsea is likely to be the best hope for England in the Champions League, but who knows what'll happen there? Jose Mourinho could be lured away, or Roman Abramovich could throw all his toys out of the pram and sack him, or any number of things.

In any case, we'll have some more clarity once the World Cup is over, and the clubs have settled in with new managers and players. But if a team outside of the Big 3 countries makes it to the final, I'll be very surprised.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Mostly Plants: The problem with labelling

There have been a number of adjustments to moving from London back to the Bay Area, when it comes to health and diet. The big, obvious one is that I don't walk as much as I used to - I've had to get really anal about setting daily and monthly step goals, and ensuring that I meet them. Another is the price of food. For all the talk about how expensive it is in the UK, staples like milk, bread and fruit cost way more here than they do there (and the quality is about the same).

But the most jarring difference, and the one that's really changed how I consume food - or more appropriately, drinks - is in how things are labeled.

The UK, presumably as a result of EU regulations, uses standardized measures in its food labeling, so that you can easily compare how many calories are in 100mL of Coke (42) versus the same volume of orange juice (55). Solid foods like cereal or potato chips are compared in a standard amount of 100g, and if they come in a package smaller than that, the nutritional information will reflect how many calories and grams of sodium, sugar and fat are in the full pack. Cereal boxes go one step further, and list nutritional information for a hypothetical bowl of cereal with milk.

Here in the US, all of that goes out the window. Everything is in "servings", and these servings rarely reflect how people actually consume food or drink. For single items of, to name an example at random, drinks the system is actually not too badly designed - a 355mL can of Coke is one serving, and so is one 16oz bottle of Snapple peach iced tea. As a result you learn that both contain the same amount of sugar per serving (39g). Since I used to drink iced tea as a healthy alternative to soda, this was not a particularly welcome revelation, but my intake of Snapple has decreased dramatically (full disclosure: I'm currently drinking a bottle of Snapple as I write this, but it's okay, because today is my cheat day).

The system gets complicated as you move up to larger containers, or to other brands. I've just dug a pair of empty bottles out of my recycling crate - one is a 16oz bottle of organic oolong peach-flavored tea, and the other is a 20oz bottle of peach-flavored Joe Tea. Despite the fact that it's the same size as my bottle of Snapple, the oolong claims its servings are 8oz, meaning there are two per container; it lists its sugar per serving as 16g, which at first glance looks way healthier than the Snapple, but of course it just means when I finished the bottle I polished off 32g of sugar - slightly better than the Snapple, but not necessarily great, when you consider that the recommended daily amount of sugar for an adult is 37g.

The Joe tea, meanwhile, sets its servings at 8oz too, and says it contains 2.5 servings. Each serving has a tooth-melting 24g of sugar, so if I'd drunk the entire bottle in one sitting I'd have blasted my pancreas with 60g of sugar (luckily, I drank it over the course of three days). And it gets worse the more sizes and types of container you throw into the mix.

It's the same story with cereal, but even worse. I have two empty boxes in my recycling and one full box - two set a serving at one cup, and the third says it's 3/4 of a cup. The problem is that a cup of Basic 4 is listed as 55g, a cup of Raisin Bran is 59g and a full cup of Special K Chocolatey Delight (don't judge, OK?) is around 4g. Per cup, the Basic 4 has 13g of sugar, Raisin Bran has 18g and the Special K comes out to a relatively sedate 12g; sedate, that is, until you recall that a serving (3/4 of a cup, remember) is around half the mass of a cup of Raisin Bran; if you weighed 59g of both, the Special K would contain about the same amount of sugar as the Raisin Bran. It's a little worrying when you consider that I have one size of bowl, and I throw the same amount in every morning.

The point of all these numbers and calculations is to show that even if you're diligent and always check the label to see what you're putting into your body, it's easy to get misled. That's pretty disgraceful - and I think it goes to show just how much food companies get away with. Judging by the examples above, I think it's fair to say that they really don't want you to know what's in the food you buy.

Which brings us to the GM food debate. I'm not against GMO food in principle, but I do have problems with those who don't want it to be labeled as such. Leaving aside the food companies who want to avoid labeling GMO foods for dishonest reasons, there are also a lot of sensible people who get misled into arguing against labeling, because a lot of the people in favor of labeling argue it in terms of food safety. It's an emotive issue, but it does no one any good to argue it in apocalyptic terms; GMO foods need to be labeled so that people know what they're putting into their bodies, pure and simple. It doesn't matter if the stuff kills you or makes you live a thousand years.

Instead of dishonestly (there's that word again!) trying to hide the fact that their wares may or may not be GMO, food companies should be engaging in an honest debate about why they want to sell us that stuff. If it can survive parasites or transportation, or is reinforced with nutrients that don't usually form in that food, we should be able to know; and if it confers no benefit except to line Monsanto's pockets, we need to know that too.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

At The Midpoint

So I turned 35 yesterday.

While I've never led a particularly dangerous life, it does feel kind of weird that I made it to this age. Even when I turned 30, the next five years seemed so remote that I don't think I ever really imagined what they'd be like. On the other hand, 40 now seems like it's coming at me like a runaway train.

As I'm sure I've hinted here before, I'm not always satisfied with where I am in life - I always feel like I could be doing more interesting stuff. I still want to get in better shape, travel to more places, make more money from sources other than my salaried job, meet a lady that I like and who, for once, likes me back. All the normal stuff, I guess.

None of that stuff is out of my reach (at least, I hope not). Thirty-five may be the last opportunity for me to get to a Batman-level of fitness, but at least I feel like I could realistically do it, or at least get closer to it than I am now - I figure I could still shave 15 or 20 minutes off my half-marathon time (incidentally, I had a great half-marathon last weekend!). And, as I like to joke, once I'm too old to be Batman, I can always be Iron Man instead.

Similarly, financial independence and travel both seem within reach. I'm not in a hurry to buy a house, in part because I only ever seem to live in places where I'll never be able to afford it, and I'm working on building up my finances at least so that I'll have a reasonable amount to live off in retirement (although I figure if I can ever turn the writing into my primary income stream, I probably won't retire).

Relationship stuff feels a little problematic, of course. One of the most useless pieces of advice - after "just be yourself" - is to avoid comparing yourself to other people. But it's tough to avoid, particularly in this area of my life. My friends in London are all in relationships: almost all are married and most also have kids (hell, some are even on their second kids). My friends in the Bay Area haven't really started having kids, but they've certainly all found their life partners by now. And still dating success seems to elude me (although watch this space).

Now, the reason I mention my lack of success in dating is because, in contrast to all those other things I want to accomplish, it feels like it does come with an expiration date. Objectively that's nonsense, but even ignoring the fact that all my friends are coupled up and settled down, the culture places a lot of emphasis on getting married young, even if people of my generation are marrying later and having fewer kids as a result. It's also true that I'm now three years older than my dad was when I was born, which is kind of a sobering thought.

Looping back around to the point, the reason this failure to settle down with a partner rankles is because, as I said above, I don't feel like I've spent that much time accomplishing other goals. My professional success has come in the last two years or so, and isn't even in the field that I feel is my calling. With regard to traveling, I've managed some good trips in the last few years, but I still haven't scratched the surface of all the places I want to experience.

Just to be clear, of course, I'm not really hitting some kind of mid-life crisis - I've heard that defined as the period when a bunch of doors close that you thought would always stay open. Realistically, pretty much all of my doors are still open - I'm unlikely to live in all the countries or cities I'd like to live in, but I figure I'm more likely to meet someone by not living as a nomad.

I guess I'm just taking stock, as I frequently like to, and trying to determine where I am in relation to where I'd like to be. If there's a pervasive regret, it's that I could/should have started doing that earlier, because I presume that if I'd been more focused earlier in life, I'd be closer to my goals now. But at least I have started now, and there has been progress (though the pace still feels glacial sometimes).

Taking stock at birthdays - especially milestones - is normal, though, right? And as I said earlier this year, it's good to give yourself a break sometimes - if you're not where you want to be, you still have time to fix it. A friend once called me out for making long-term plans, saying we weren't getting any younger. But let's be honest, I can realistically make it to 90 or 95. Despite this post's title, there's still plenty of time ahead of me, and it can all be more productive than the years behind me (let's be honest, I wasn't going to do much traveling or building my finances before the age of 10 anyway). Check back in a year, and let's see what I say then.

(But also check back in next week, when I'll hopefully be in a less introspective mood.)