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.