Sunday, 18 December 2016

2016 Recap: Gosh, what an awful year

The theme of how bad 2016 has been has made its way all across my social network/filter bubble, particularly in the past couple of months, so I'm not going to recap all of the ways in which it was bad (I've touched on it in my blogs about various celebrity deaths, and in talking about Brexit). But it's interesting to me how for once I feel in lockstep with the prevailing view of how bad the year's been.

Other "bad years", I haven't necessarily felt the same way, possibly because things were going better for me personally, or because I wasn't in the US and so I couldn't relate to the feeling on the ground (at least in places like the Bay Area or New York; presumably in Arkansas or the Rust Belt people are happy about how this year's gone, who knows?). Even 2001 doesn't stand out for me as a year that was shit from start to finish - without sounding callous, the attacks on the World Trade Center were awful but I didn't have that visceral reaction to them that a lot of people seem to have had, even those who weren't in New York at the time and didn't know anyone directly affected.

But this year was just a bad'un, from start to finish - the fact that David Bowie essentially dropped dead, and that a load of other celebrities followed (some had been ill, some were old, some were apparently finished off by the macro-currents of politics), seems to have really set the tone. The one thing that seemed universally positive this year was Leicester City winning the Premier League, but I can't shake the feeling that such a long shot coming through led to Brexit...

(FYI, no, I don't actually believe that, I have a general understanding of what happened behind both of those events. But allow me the artistic license, okay?)

Apart from one or two things, it wasn't that awesome a year for me at a personal level either, which I think is why the stuff happening worldwide (including what's going on in Syria right now) seems to be affecting me so much. It's hard to say it was a particularly bad year, personally, but there's a sense of not moving forward the way I was in 2013, just as I prepared to move back to the US from London.

At a writing level, I did move forward with a couple of things, which I'm pleased about. I finished (and revised) a full movie script, for instance, a thing I've never managed before. And I finished revising a novel, and started sending it to agents, which is more than I've done for most of the novels I've written thus far.

Most notably, one of my short stories, which I've actually been shopping around for quite a long time, got accepted to an anthology (which is on sale now!), so that feels like a positive development, and one that hopefully I can build on. If nothing else, that shows the importance of actually sending stuff out - I managed a few more story submissions than last year, which clearly helped for getting this one placed. The hopeful thing is that I'm starting to get ideas for new short stories, which means more stuff to send out - and considering that I haven't written a short story since 2013, having more in the pipeline is actually a great development.

On the fitness front, there's been a severe lack of progress, though. I wonder how much is down to the fact that I didn't manage to sign up for a race this year, even though I've logged as many miles as in 2015. I'll be the first to admit that my diet hasn't always been as great as it could have been, but it's hard to draw any conclusions based on my food diaries from last year. Still, in the last couple of months I've done a better job of policing certain things (like my sugar intake), so hopefully there's a foundation to build on there.

Dating was an area that seemed to show some promise, but then fizzled out again. I did meet someone cute (through an app), and went out with her a number of times (previously I hadn't gone on more than two dates with anyone since moving back to the US), but then on the eve of our fifth date she cancelled, saying she was going to see someone else exclusively. So I end 2016 pretty much as I started it - at square one. My idea is to try and meet more people organically, but I'm not sure how successful it'll be, as my friend circle is pretty comprehensively married off and short on single females. And most frustratingly, here as in other areas where I'm not satisfied, it's hard to find silver linings or lessons to be drawn going forward - which is what really makes 2016 a bad year, in my opinion. But I have to be positive, because what's the alternative...?

Money-wise, I've actually managed to accomplish all of my goals, for once, and am hoping to achieve something a little more ambitious. But I've been plagued by two realizations: first, that I simply don't make enough money to live in the Bay Area, unless I'm being subsidized by one or more parents; and second, in September I learned the scale of how badly I'm being paid, in comparison to a new starter who's very junior to me and has fewer qualifications. The answer to both problems is to find a new job, but that's easier said than done, and I'm concerned about how much I'd be giving up by leaving my current job - five weeks of vacation, for example, and the free time to work on my own interests outside of work. But we'll see, I guess.

For other types of goals, it's also been a pretty good year - I got out to New York, and to Argentina, as well as my yearly trip to the UK and Italy. I'm hoping for another visit to Asia or Australia this year, and would love to get out to other parts of the US, or even just other parts of California. And I've taken advantage of a lot of the cultural stuff on offer here in the Bay Area (which reminds me, I need to sign up for Sketchfest). So the plan is to make more aggressive goals for 2017.

The question, of course, is how any of this will be affected by what's happened in the rest of the world. I'm not planning any trips to the Middle East, but frankly I expect the rest of the world to become a lot more dangerous during a Trump presidency, especially for Americans. At the very least a lot of right-thinking people in the rest of the world are going to have that automatic suspicion of me because of my passport and accent, which is a shame. And I'm not hopeful about my own country turning safer or saner over the next four years - in fact, I expect it'll become a libertarian/objectivist nightmare. It remains to be seen how that'll affect individual people, but expect that it will.

But I think John Oliver summed it up best in the final episode for this year of Last Week Tonight. Here's hoping 2017 is better (because it really can get worse, you know):

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Why Third Parties Aren't an Awesome Idea

The 2016 election cycle is mercifully arriving at its climax, which is good, because for the first time ever I'm pretty much sick of it all - politics, horse-trading, handicapping, etc. It occurred to me a few days ago that obsessively checking Nate Silver's 538 and worrying about what those numbers mean is bad for my sanity - I've voted, and my ability to affect the result ends there.

So what have I been thinking about? Well, for one thing, that it would have been nice to have a Democratic candidate untainted by the cozy relationship the party's had with big business since her husband was president. And that, even though I'm not particularly a follower of Bernie Sanders, it would have been nice to have a president who pays lip service to my brand of left-wingery.

(Also, please no comments on how far left Hillary Clinton's voting record is - that's as may be, but she did still vote for the Iraq War, so...)

I've thought long and hard about the Green Party, too, but I've just been really unimpressed with them. I'm satisfied that Jill Stein isn't an anti-vaxxer, but I'm not satisfied that she hasn't addressed that more forcefully - y'know, being a fucking medical doctor and all - and I'm furious that her first reaction to Brexit was to say what a good thing it was that it happened that way.

Add to that the fact that the Greens resolutely haven't made any inroads into state or local politics (apart from the odd mayor or council member here or there), and I can legitimately ask why I should waste my vote on them.

But there's another problem with the Greens, that I don't know if anybody's really thought of: if they were to become a major national party, perhaps winning a state here or there, that would essentially hand the field to the Republicans. All of the left-wing Democrats would move there, leaving the centrists to either shift right to the Republican party, or become a regional irrelevancy.

This is essentially my problem with the oft-quoted idea among some Americans that we need more than two parties. I look at the situation in Europe, where multiple parties are quite common, and am not convinced it's the right answer for America.

Take Britain, for example. Labour and the Conservatives are the two main parties, and the Liberal Democrats are generally on the outside, looking in. In the years since the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats merged, the Lib Dems have been close to power only once, when they joined David Cameron's Tories in a coalition, after the results between Labour and the Tories were too close for either to form a government. The Lib Dems effectively made themselves irrelevant, failing to honor any of their promises or enact any of their key policies, and were punished for it at the last general election, leaving only two credible parties to contest power in Westminster.

(Now, that said, they seem to be the only voice of reason in the midst of Brexit, so there may be hope for a resurgence, but for the time being they've done themselves in)

Italy is another example of the multi-party system not working - there are so many parties, that each general election requires them to form coalitions, which become more and more precarious as the number of parties involved increases. You end up either with a group of unruly junior partners who can leave at a moment's notice and cause your government to fall, or you find yourself having to join a coalition with unsavory or ideologically incompatible parties (such as the xenophobic Lega Nord).

There have been two results for Italian politics: one is that this constant jostling means that the government is relatively unstable, and since World War II there's been an average of a new government each year. The other is that the parties effectively coalesce into unions of left and right - leaving us back where we started. And this trend is present all over Europe, not just Italy and the UK.

So to liberals or progressives (I prefer to term myself a liberal, because I find "progressive" to be wishy-washy) who are thinking of joining the Green Party after this election, my suggestion is to stay within the Democratic Party, and actually work to turn it into a sensible, non-ideological but clearly left-wing party. When I say non-ideological, I mean tuned to the concerns of its base without imposing ideas on them that they clearly don't want - in practice, this means reducing the power of corporations and simply leveling the playing field for everybody, regardless of color, social class or other factors.

I'm not saying working within the Democratic Party is the only way to build a credible left-wing party in the US - but I think that strengthening the Green Party (or other left-wing parties) will mean years of being in the wilderness for the left-wing, liberal agenda. And America can't afford that right now.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Some quick thoughts on Brexit

I just got back last night from my yearly trip to Europe, to see friends in London and family in Turin. I'd been looking forward to it for quite a while - not as long as last year, when I booked the September/October trip in about May or so, but long enough - though the referendum result and the subsequent uncertainty over what kind of place Britain will be after it leaves the EU had made me a little apprehensive.

Free movement of EU citizens allowed me to move to Britain not once but twice, after college and after journalism school, so I'm naturally biased in favor of the UK staying in the EU. I also felt that the options for the country after leaving were both dishonest and disappointing - taking on a model like those of Norway or Switzerland would have meant even less sovereignty, but the hard Brexit that appears to be on the cards seems like a license for the Tory government to completely roll back any progressive initiatives. In other words, if the working classes were furious at Europe for not giving them any opportunities, wait until they see what Theresa May and her government have in store for them.

But London's the epicenter of open, cosmopolitan and multicultural Britain, so what could I expect there? On the street, though I felt a little self-conscious (especially on the night that I went out to dinner in the West End with my cousin and his wife, speaking Italian the whole time), I didn't actually experience any hassle. In fact, I used to get hassled more often for being an American when I lived there...

That said, a lot of people I talked to who aren't EU citizens were concerned about the direction that things are taking. A Mexican friend whose wife is Spanish seems safe for the time being, thanks to his job, but an American colleague said he and his wife didn't want their new baby growing up in that atmosphere. And I don't blame them - movements eat themselves, and when you start by compelling firms to list why they've hired foreign workers, eventually things are going to get unpleasant for all migrants, not just the poor ones that are the undeserving focus of all this rage by certain parts of the population.

All of which confirms for me that I made the right decision leaving Britain three years ago. I like being in London, and traveling in the rest of the UK, but even the supposed Remain voters were pretty xenophobic and jingoistic back then, to the point that if I insisted back in 2002 that my paying taxes made me British, the following decade or so disabused me of any notion that it was a welcoming society.

I am a little sad that the option of moving to Britain whenever I feel like it is going to disappear. One friend insists that I'm the type of migrant that post-Brexit Britain will want, but I think he's being naive - even if Britain rolls out the red carpet for middle-class professionals coming from rich countries come 2019, I'll still be benefiting from the xenophobia that blocks anyone with a Polish or Romanian name from doing the jobs that no Briton wants, and that doesn't sit well with me.

Like I've been telling everyone since last year, I miss being in Britain, but I don't miss living there. The events of the last couple of months have shown me I'm well shot of the place - from the divisive, ugly and ultimately violent (RIP Jo Cox) Leave campaign to the increase in xenophobic hate crime and the complete lack of understanding (or interest) on the part of Leave campaigners of how such a divorce would work in practicality or how it would affect the people whose voices they claim to be upholding. I just feel bad for my friends who voted to stay in the EU, but now have to stay in Britain - it's going to be a rough few years ahead.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Watch What You Write

Because one of the projects I've been working on this year, and indeed, for the past few weeks, is a superhero screenplay, I've been watching a lot of those, either on Netflix or rented from Amazon (er, when I'm not renting the Fast & Furious saga, that is).

This is, as I mentioned in a previous post, why I rented The Amazing Spiderman, the version with Andrew Garfield - I was following the suggestions of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, or Syd Field's Screenplay, to watch movies similar to what you're writing.

It's pretty childishly obvious, as far as advice goes. For instance, my interest in fantasy novels stems from my early attempts to write a fantasy novel of my own. I'd read Tolkien before then, but apart from the more YA-oriented fare, like CS Lewis or Lloyd Alexander, I was unfamiliar with how the genre worked.

Now, you would think that having grown up on comics, I'd know how the superhero genre works, but it happens not to be so. Comics are one way of telling stories - a language, if you like - and movies turn out to be a similar but not entirely equivalent language, and this is one of the things I've been discovering as I watched more of them.

The main takeaway, in fact, has been that Act One of a superhero film needs to be almost exclusively about the hero. Those first 30 or 40 pages are meant to establish where the hero starts, what they need to learn, and how they get their powers - the first act ends when they've put on the mask and gone looking for bad guys to beat up.

Interestingly, though, the thing that established this iron law for me was one step nerdier than just watching the films - I discovered it through reading the shooting scripts (or what purported to be shooting scripts) of Batman Begins and the 2002 version of Spiderman, the one with Tobey Maguire.

This is a suggestion from Robert Ben Garant and Tom Lennon's Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, incidentally - they note that shooting scripts are as close to what's on-screen as it gets, which means you aren't reading an initial draft that was used to gin up interest in a film. Although those can be pretty interesting to read too - look for the script for Die Hard, the opening of which is subtly different from how the movie was shot.

In any case, I remember the "eureka" moment pretty clearly - I'd just gone through Act One of Spiderman, and made the connection, so I'd then gone looking for Batman Begins, to see if it held true. It felt like I was on to something, so I checked the notes I'd made for Amazing Spiderman (yes, I took copious notes while I was watching Amazing Spiderman - two and a half pages on a yellow legal pad, in fact). And eureka indeed - my first page of notes corresponded roughly to the first act, and to the point in the 2002 Spiderman movie where Tobey Maguire dons his own mask.

So the suggestion, then, is to both watch movies in your genre (taking notes), and then look for the shooting scripts online. Reading the script is helpful because you get less distracted by the fun on-screen, which is also important. And the best is if you can watch or read films/scripts from different movies that tell effectively the same story - remakes or reboots or reimaginings seem to be close to justifying their existence purely for budding filmmakers.

Now, that said, Act One and the transition to Act Two is about as far as I got in my research so far. I haven't entirely figured out how Acts Two and Three work yet, but when I do I'll be sure to post what I've found. But in the meantime, I'll be working my through the Fast and the Furious again - with notes...

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Wanting to Write, vs Wanting to Be a Writer

I always have a hard time when people ask me what I want to do with my life.

That's not because I don't know, of course. The difficulty comes in expressing it - long ago I decided to stop saying I wanted to be a writer, because it implied wanting the lifestyle of being a writer without the work of actually writing books. So instead I started saying I wanted to write, which is accurate, but also implies that I'm not doing it. I had, in fact, a conversation once that went pretty much along those exact lines. When I said I wanted to write books, the person I was talking to said, "So write."

How to explain that at the time I had already written two novels, and was working on a third? Or that I'd written a bunch of short stories, and sent them out to publishers and magazines, dating back to high school? It was a long, convoluted conversation, in which I eventually got my point across, I hope, but it showed me the futility of answering the question the way I do. Although I'm sure she'd have said the same thing if I'd answered that I wanted to be a writer.

That said, I do think it's a useful distinction to make, even though most people don't understand writing (or other forms of creativity) to begin with. To me, saying you want to "be a writer", like wanting to "be" anything else, implies that you're interested mainly in the optics of it. Being a writer sounds fun - you get to go to book parties, see your films optioned (and sometimes turned into good movies), and all that. Paradoxically, it doesn't seem to include the actual sitting at your desk night after night, trying to finish a thing.

On the other hand, saying you want to write suggests that you do understand the actual mechanics of what makes one a writer, though it also implies that you aren't doing any writing at the moment. And, as illustrated above, leaves you open to well-meaning but not-always-helpful suggestions like that from my friend.

"So write" sticks with me after all this time, as well, because it's one of those pieces of advice that are logically correct (if you want to write, do so), but don't take in the full import of writing as a hobby or vocation or whatever. It implies some lack of seriousness, at least to my ears, as the advice isn't to "just write, research markets or agents, and submit to them".

But saying that I want to be a writer also isn't very satisfying because it implies I'm not there yet. I'm not saying that having taken second place in's January 2013 contest, and earning £50 as a result, makes me a writer, on par with George RR Martin, but if I have put in the work for as long as I have, even without more than that to show for it, doesn't that mean I can say I'm a writer?

I appreciate this is all a bunch of weird, semantic tail-chasing. Weird semantic tail-chasing is one of the things I live on. And it might be coming because at some level I wonder if the effort is worth it - it's not like I'm so good that publishers or whoever can't ignore me. On the other hand, as I tell myself every time I consider quitting, it's not like I have another vocation lined up. Sitting at home and watching TV every night until I die doesn't sound very appealing.

While I'm generally a positive person, I also understand that hard work is only one part of being successful. The most important part, certainly, but there are a lot of people who work hard at whatever they love without ever striking it big. There's also luck, which is predicated in part on how hard or how smart you work. I can't escape the (almost romantic) image of being the unrecognized genius, which is slightly satisfying on a sub-conscious level, but not as much as the idea of seeing a bookshelf filled with my own novels, or of seeing my name in the credits of a movie.

To bring it all back around, whether I tell people I want to be a writer or that I want to write, most won't get it. But what's important is probably that I understand what I'm setting myself up for - and that I understand what I mean when I tell people what I want to do with my life.

So do I realize the full import of wanting to write, and to be a writer? Sure - I just spent Saturday night finishing up an outline for a horror movie, after all, rather than going to a bar to meet girls. But while I hope for the payoff, I should probably remember to give myself a break about not having hit it yet. And think about new ways to do it.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Batman Vs Superman: Just as Bad as I'd Feared

Not beating around the bush here with that title. I was bored last night, and looking for a movie to rent on Amazon, so I went looking for superhero movies I'd missed when they were in theaters. My first two choices, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, weren't out yet, and Deadpool felt a little expensive for something I'd seen on the plane, so I swallowed hard and went for Batman Vs Superman.

I'm not even going to bother putting up the spoiler guy for this. It's a bad movie. It's badly acted, badly scripted, badly directed and has lackluster CGI. Someone comes back from the future, completely out of the blue, to warn Batman not to let Lois Lane die, and then it turns out to be a dream. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor as if the character's a merger between Mark Zuckerberg and the Joker.

Compared to this, Suicide Squad was a work of art.

What's frustrating is that, in theory at least, I like David Goyer (who script doctored BvS). He wrote Batman Begins, which while not my favorite Batman story, at least got the character back on an even keel after Batman & Robin. He also has some good insights into the character - my favorite is how Goyer once pointed out that there are three facets to Batman/Bruce Wayne's personality: there's the public face of Bruce Wayne, the public (sorta) face of Batman, and the private Bruce Wayne, who's actually a badass.

In fairness to Goyer, the fact he rewrote the script means we were probably saved from something really brain-damaging... or it could have been to shoehorn more prep for the upcoming Justice League movie. Whatever.

The problem is that it could have been really good, if they'd just stuck with what's so good about the characters (including Wonder Woman), or even just added some horsepower to the action scenes. It seems odd to say about a movie that cost something like $200 million and features the destruction of two cities, but the action scenes are so boring - I know I can't seem to shut about the Fast & Furious movies, but at least they're exciting. The one car chase here looks like it was filmed underwater.

Funnily enough, though everybody was freaking out about him in the role, Ben Affleck as Batman wasn't the worst thing about the movie. In fact, I'll go so far as to say he was fine - he didn't have the unctuous playboy act down as well as Christian Bale in his prime, but I found him believable as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. And they solved the Bat-voice problem which had plagued the Nolan films.

Of course, it's still one of the top 50 highest-grossing movies of all time, despite losing 81% of revenues in its second weekend and a further 50% in the third. There's always been the impression that nerds are so starved for movies that cater to them that they'll lap up any old crap, and it's hard not to get the impression that this is why BvS has done so well (it didn't hit its projected $1 billion but it certainly recouped its budget). I also remember seeing some friends on Facebook taking issue with the blog posts (including ones I shared) saying that they didn't actually have to go see it - it's almost as bad as the fans of Suicide Squad who (Donald Trump-style) tried to ignore Rotten Tomatoes for giving their beloved movie a low score.

I read once that blockbusters are badly written because there's no compelling reason (whether in terms of cost or profit) for them to be written well. But I can still hope that someday someone decides to put out a superhero movie that doesn't suck quite this blatantly.

Or, screw it, just let me re-watch all the Fast & Furious movies while I wait for number 8 to come out. At least I'll enjoy myself.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Coming around to the Fast and the Furious saga

Like many bien-pensant movie fans, I've spent the last fifteen years laughing derisively whenever the subject of The Fast and The Furious came up. They featured some not particularly excellent actors, and seemed with each installment to add yet another action star, Expendables-style, to the roster, and another dumb variation on the original name (2Fast 2Furious! Fast 5! Furious 7!).

Graphs like this didn't help, frankly

And yet...

I recently broke down, since I saw that Netflix had the first three movies on streaming. I'd actually seen parts of the original movie on TV a few years ago, and part of the seventh on the plane last year, so I was curious about a number of things, like how they'd gone from that original film to the set-pieces and exotic locales of the latest. And I was curious how they would see of Paul Walker's character, following the actor's death in 2013 while Furious 7 was in production.

I can also blame my youngest sister, who revealed to me when Furious 7 came out that she'd seen and loved all of the movies. Since she has a master's degree in English from Oxford, how can I argue with an endorsement like that?

So yeah, not only did I mainline (heh) the first three movies, I then rented the fourth through sixth movies on Amazon and caught the seventh on HBO Go. This all took me about ten days, with my lunch breaks devoted to watching a bit at a time, and then catching a bit more while watching dinner after work.

It was kind of tough going at times, I'll admit. 2Fast 2Furious, to me, is easily the worst of the bunch, badly acted and poorly scripted, with holes in logic large enough to drive a fleet of Skylines through. There were similar problems with the third installment, Tokyo Drift, but I actually liked that one a lot.

The problem with criticizing those aspects, though, is that the movies are just so damn fun. The first one starts with a truck-jacking run by three souped-up Civics, and the filmmakers double down on the car-related capers in each film, to the point that by Fast & Furious, the confusingly named fourth installment (and the start of FF's imperial phase), you can't help but laugh with joy at what they're doing. It could be Walker and Diesel dragging a safe through the streets of Rio, or it could be Dwayne Johnson knocking out a military chopper with nothing but a gatling gun ripped from a downed predator drone, but it makes you happy.

Yes, this is The Rock firing a gatling gun at a helicopter. What's your point?

Another thing that sets these movies apart from other recent action movies is the relationships between all the characters. The first traces Paul Walker's undercover cop being drawn in by Vin Diesel's "family", composed of siblings, lovers, neighbors - all folks united by their love of ten-second cars. By the end Walker and other actors collected over the course of the saga (like Ludacris and Dwayne Johnson) are also part of the family, joking around with each other in ways you rarely see in ensemble flicks - the Avengers movies are dour and dysfunctional in comparison with this crew.

Related is the fact that each movie does a good job of showing its characters' joy. Weak as it is, Tokyo Drift is the first film where I put my finger on this aspect - there's a scene late in the second act, where Lucas Black is driving with his love interest along a mountain road at night. They're relaxed, talking about their childhoods, while the wide shots have a convoy of sports cars drifting left and right along the road's hairpin turns, in such perfect unison that they look like a single organism.

But even as early as the first movie you can see this joyfulness. Paul Walker's just lost his first race against Vin Diesel, and badly, but he's in the mob of fans congratulating Diesel on his win, and despite losing his car Walker's got this broad, goofy grin on his face - I once heard Walker referred to as "possibly the worst actor of his generation", but it's hard to see it in that single scene. And it carries on through the seventh movie, where you have the entire crew joking and teasing as they prepare to parachute their cars out the back of a plane over a remote mountain pass in Azerbaijan (of all places).

It was also nice that they gave Paul Walker's character a decent send-off at the end of Furious 7, almost breaking the fourth wall for us to share in celebrating what the actor meant to them as characters and us as viewers. I'm curious what they plan to do with the character, if anything, in the forthcoming eighth installment; the best would be leaving him out of further adventures, rather than using the character's death as an inciting incident to set Vin Diesel and the others on their latest quest, but we'll see.

I will, anyway - in the theaters. Probably not on opening day, but hopefully with my sister in tow, a new set of silly films for us to bond over.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Naturalism of Stranger Things

Like pretty much everybody else in America, I've now finished watching Stranger Things on Netflix (or rather, binged watched it over the course of three days). I'm not really looking to discuss the plot, but I'd also like to be able to talk about whatever I want, so here's your warning:

Anyway, how about all that 80s goodness? I guess I should admit up top here that I'm actually kind of nuts for stuff from that decade - I've recently been looking (not always successfully) for action movies from the 80s on Netflix, after having caught Rambo II and III in close succession, and watched The Running Man not long after that. Also, Back to the Future is one of the few movies I own, and it's hard to get more 80s than that.

So it was fun to see something that looked a lot like my childhood, and did so without (to my mind) being excessive. Sure, I did think when they introduced Sheriff Hopper that they were taking the Stephen King references a little too far by casting someone for the role who looked way too much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but David Harbour actually managed to do so much with the role that by the end of Day One of my viewing (when I was wrapping up the fourth episode) I'd forgotten about that association.

It's also true that sometimes the visual references back to other shows or movies could be distracting - when Mike and the gang are walking along the tracks looking for the gate, I want to be thinking about what's happening, rather than thinking, "Oh, right, Stand By Me." But I suppose that's the danger in creating something that unashamedly parades its influences for the audience.

In my opinion, that's why the show was so successful - people will usually respond favorably to things that are a melange of stuff they know, as long as the mixing is done well and doesn't follow the source material too slavishly. It's why Super 8, JJ Abrams's attempt at a similar homage to the 80s and to Steven Spielberg, was less successful - Abrams made everything look and feel too much like The Goonies mixed with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and didn't end up having the space to make the audience care about the characters.

Another reason is that Stranger Things also feels like an artifact of its time. Much like Drive, which felt like a lost 80s Michael Mann film of the type you might find randomly channel-surfing on a Sunday afternoon, Stranger Things looks and sounds and feels like a story that's been sitting around since 1984, which we've only just noticed now.

No matter the fact that they hired the super-recognizable Winona Ryder as the put-upon single mom (another 80s sci-fi archetype, btw), or that most of the cast hadn't been born yet - the kids' faces are of the type that you'd have seen back then, and they're engaging in behaviors that would get modern-day parents sent up the river by child services (like, you know, swearing and riding bikes on their own).

That casting is extremely important, incidentally. I noticed it while I was watching (and it's one of the things that Super 8 got mostly right too), but the changes in casting policy for kids didn't hit home for me until just a few days later, when I watched The Amazing Spiderman, the 2012 reboot featuring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.

Andrew Garfield doesn't look or sound 17 in Spiderman, and the reason for that is that he was 29 when it came out. Even Emma Stone was 24 despite playing Peter's classmate Gwen Stacy. There are probably advantages to casting older actors, but I found myself being pulled out of the movie at times when Peter smiled and looked like a guy well past drinking age.

Although that's the nature of film-making now, isn't it? Verisimilitude isn't as important as getting butts in seats, and if it takes name stars who are 12 years older than the characters they play, then studios are probably happy to do it.

But I'm getting off topic. The casting was one of things that the Duffer Brothers got so, so right, along with the music and dialogue and references, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens in Season 2.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Second Season Syndrome

Just finished Season 2 of Daredevil, and over the last 13 episodes, I've been struck by the odd idea that second seasons of shows are typically the best of all.

It shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but it's something that had never occurred to me before. In this specific case, Season 1 of Daredevil was focused on setting the scene, with Matt Murdock not donning the red suit until the very end of the season finale. This led to a lot of stuff that we saw play out in Season 2, like the Hand and more of the Kingpin's machinations, but whereas getting through Season 1 was kind of a slog, I couldn't get enough of Season 2 - to the point that I've been watching two episodes a day this week.

I can think of a few other examples, like the Big Bang Theory, Star Trek: TOS, Justified or (more controversially) the Wire. I can also think of a few counter-examples, notably Heroes, which apparently turned into a real stinker in its second season.

But thinking about it, I believe that improving in the second season or iteration is a lot more common for TV shows than other media. The "difficult second album" or "shitty sequel" is almost axiomatic for music and movies - in the case of the latter, a band or artist that's emerged with a singular vision that they developed over years is suddenly expected to hit it big again in vastly different circumstances, while for movies a sequel is usually driven by similar dynamics in that the studios and financiers want more of the same.

Where TV shows have the edge, I believe, is that by being serialized they're expected to continue, and lead on to bigger and better. A hit CD or movie or novel, as I said, emerges from nowhere and makes everyone fall in love with it, but generally speaking stands on its own. JRR Tolkien took so long to write The Lord of the Rings because he probably never expected The Hobbit to be so resonant (and yeah, WWII-related paper shortages and bombings likely also helped).

A TV show, by contrast, has the time (unless it's a real stinker from the start) to figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and calibrate accordingly, both across a single season and across multiple seasons. To cite the Big Bang Theory again, the first couple episodes are pretty painful to watch, thanks to some weird gender politics and treatment of socially awkward types. But as the relationships fleshed out, the season ended strongly, and when it came back for Season 2, the show fired on all cylinders until about the middle of Season 3, when Penny dumped Leonard.

Or, in the case of a show that starts well, the second season allows the writers to expand on the universe. This is the case with Justified, where the Crowder storyline from the first season expands out to include other characters from Harlan County, like the Bennett Clan, who insinuate themselves into proceedings for the rest of the show (or at least, through to Season 5, which is as far as I've gotten).

Similarly with the Wire, the second season allowed the creators to show that it wasn't simply about cops and drug dealers, by showing how the decay and hopelessness of the West Baltimore projects was mirrored in the destruction of the dockworkers' livelihood.

Of course, not all shows improve in the second season - Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't get good until Season 3, and Grimm, as I've said, plodded along as a kind of guilty pleasure until the end of Season 4 when the writers decided to throw everything out the window and go apeshit. Others, like the aforementioned Heroes, are so perfect in the first season that they can never live up to that early promise - or they write themselves into a corner with an overarching plot that gets too convoluted to ever resolve.

Daredevil, pleasingly, managed to open out its universe in ways that felt right, and if the overall plot was more disjointed than in Season 1, it just all felt much more assured. What I'm a little concerned about is Season 2 of Mr. Robot - the first season felt so perfectly done, and went to such interesting places, that I have trouble imagining how they top it.

Because that's what you're meant to do in creative endeavors - or really anything. Doing a great job at first is wonderful, but once you show what you can do you're held to that standard for ever after. Satisfying customers is simple, but not easy, because it involves doing the same thing, but better. So I'll be checking out reviews and ratings for this new season of Mr. Robot - fingers crossed.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Euro 2016 and the End of History

So, my title this week may be a little melodramatic, but that phrase has been bouncing around in my mental space a lot recently (interestingly enough in the context of the Brexit vote at the end of June, which I'm still processing). In any case, another European Championships has come and gone, and we've added a new nation to the club of winners.

Ronaldo's tears

Call me sentimental, but there's something ineffable somehow of seeing a player universally acknowledged as one of the best of the game, but who never wins anything with his country. In an odd way, I'm sad to see Cristiano Ronaldo taken off this list.

It's not so much that I dislike him, because disliking Cristiano Ronaldo is frankly a bit cliche. Everybody hates him, and part of the fun of hating him is acknowledging that he really is one of the best in the world (though I still think Messi's better overall). But when you've got a player who's that good on the field, and that arrogant off it, it seems a little unfair that he should also get to win the second-biggest prize in football.

On the other hand... part of me really did feel for him today when he had to limp off with his knee-knack. We're so used to Ronaldo's theatrics that when he's genuinely hurt and fighting to stay on, you do feel a little remorse for him. And even I found it hard not to be moved by his expression when the game ended and his team had won.


There was a lot of talk this year about the Golden Generation of the late 90s and early 2000s, the last representative of which is Ricardo Quaresma, as there is at every tournament. I think there's been a sense for a long time that Portugal has been not as good as it was in those years, and a sense of injustice that Ronaldo should come along after those older players had faded away. But now, somewhat improbably, Ronaldo's guided and inspired his nation to sporting glory, twelve years after they had it snatched from them by a Greece team that played very similarly to how Portugal played this year.

How good was the tournament, really?

There's been a lot of talk lately about how bad Euro 2016 has been. Even at the end of today's game, Steve MacManaman was parping on ESPN about what a terrible winner Portugal was, and certainly the pundits at the Guardian have been complaining about the cagey football engendered by the expanded format.

Thinking about it, though, I'm not so sure. That is to say, of course there have been some bad teams, and some cagey games - and it's hard to argue with the point that there's been a dearth of goals this year. Somebody noted on Thursday, when France was beating Germany, that there hasn't even been a hat-trick in the tournament.

But how much fun would it have been if every team had done as well as people had expected? We'd have missed out on Iceland's run (and England's implosion would have been less spectacular if it had come at the hands of any other team, frankly). At the very least, the knockout stages would have been a bit more balanced and so the final would likely have been contested by two of the same old teams - perhaps even Germany and Spain.

No, the football may not have been as scintillating as Mexico 1970, and the expanded format, with its weird rules for qualifying and for the group stage, may not be that successful. But any tournament that can give us surprises like Iceland, Wales and, at the very end, Portugal - well, we probably shouldn't discount the value of upsets and shock results.

So what's next?

And, as imperfect as the 24-team European Championships are, they'll still be better than the next two World Cups - which will take place in Russia and Qatar, respectively. If nothing else, we know that the European Championships actually get awarded to good venues, regardless of how much bribery and backhanders are going on.

And to be honest, though some are already sniffing at the 2020 format, which will be played in multiple cities across Europe to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the European Championships, I think it'll actually be great. The great advantage that Europe has over other regions is the existing infrastructure and fanbase, not to mention the relative ease of getting between venues (erm, excluding Baku, Azerbaijan, of course). Sure, there'll be some grumbling about last-minute plane or train tickets, but it actually seems nice that for once the entire continent gets to join in the fun.

I don't know where I'll be in four years, but it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that I could get over to one of the countries hosting matches. And it'd be great to experience, once again, that feeling of watching a game and knowing that the entire city around you is doing the same. The last time I experienced that was the 1996 semi-final between England and Germany, and I think we could have it again in 2020.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Euro 2016: Some Talking Points

Four years on from the last one, two years on from Brazil 2014, I'm happy to report that the European Championships are back - I haven't been able to do a day-by-day rundown of what's happened, since I work and the matches are all broadcast early. One of the unfortunate things about watching a European tournament from the West Coast, I guess.

In any case, here are some thoughts about the tournament so far, with each team having played twice in the group stage:

Too much football
Well, it doesn't really feel that way, because I haven't been watching Copa America, but in another way, it totally feels like there's too much football on to follow. I understand it's the Copa America Centenario, but it's a little unfortunate that they decided to schedule it against the Euros. And yet, it's been entertaining seeing the results from a little closer to home (including a pretty spectacular crash-and-burn from Brazil). Also, a small part of me regrets that the African Cup of Nations isn't also on...

Goals, goals, goals?
So I was trying to decide if there had been a lot of goals scored so far, or if it's been a cagey affair. Because I'm a research analyst, and I'm trained to look at numbers and see what stories they tell, I can now report that there's actually been fewer goals per game than the past two tournaments. Euro 2016 has seen an average 1.96 goals per game, compared with 2.9 at Brazil 2014 and a whopping 3.8 at Euro 2012. There have been two 0-0 draws so far in the group stage, compared with three in 2014 and none at all (!) in 2012.

It FELT like there'd been a decent amount of goals, though, because we didn't start getting scoreless draws until just a couple of days ago, but on the whole, the games have been low-scoring. On Matchday 1 there were only three games won by a margin of more than one goal, and none in which either team scored more than two (or in which the total number of goals in a game was more than 3). As of Matchday 2 there have been a couple of 3-0 games, and a 2-2 draw, balanced out by two 0-0 results.

I haven't seen anyone refer to the number of goals yet, but some comments I've read or heard on podcasts might shed some light on why it's been so low. One issue might be the expanded format - we've gone this year from 16 teams to 24, which entails all kinds of weird permutations to determine who goes through as a third-place finisher. The extra teams means that worse teams are participating - the likes of Hungary, Iceland and Albania have been held up as teams that wouldn't have qualified under the old system. And yet... Hungary shocked everyone by beating Austria 2-0 in their first game, and Iceland have nicked a pair of 1-1 draws, playing entertainingly if not always fluidly.

The existence of third place finishing might have something to do with it too, as it appears to reward playing cagily and not conceding too many goals. And the field is still quite open, as any of the third-place teams as of now could win and go through, while only one team (Ukraine) has been definitely eliminated.

Another possible cause is the dearth of good strikers, apparently. I haven't looked at it systematically, but some of the big powers - Italy, Spain, Germany, France - don't really have any good options up front. The only big team that does have a good strike force is England, with Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy (who incidentally were the first English top-scorers in the Premier League since 1999-2000). Spain and Germany, in fact, have pretty much done away with the need for strikers, though Alvaro Morata did manage to bag two against Turkey this morning. It would be interesting to see if this holds true across all teams, and if so why, but it's Saturday night and I don't know if I have the time to go looking myself. But watch this space!

Thank gosh for streaming
The other noteworthy thing, at least for me, is that this is the first tournament I've watched exclusively on streaming. I did have to nick a Comcast profile off a friend, because my mom's moved away from the Bay Area and I can't use hers, and I also did have to get my home internet upgraded (although that's more because I'm working from home more regularly now).

In 2014 I managed to watch a lot of the games for free on through Univision's website, but they've wised up, and anyway aren't showing the tournament themselves - slightly less interest if the Copa America's on, I suppose. But it's interesting that with some strategically deployed technology and cannily downloaded apps, I can stream games to my TV and watch as normal - or log into my phone or laptop and watch them there.

Thinking back, four years ago, in England, it doesn't even seem like it would have been an option, or at least not for all matches. Even further back, in 2002, I remember having to slip unnoticed to a colleague's desk to watch Italy get knocked out on a portable TV - now I can just sign into whatever device I want and watch there. It's maybe not the most earth-shattering use case, but it does sometimes feel like all this tech isn't a bad thing.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for now - I'll be back after the group stage ends, and hopefully before the knockout round begins with some more. Or at the latest, on July 6th to think about the tournament as a whole...

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Argentina Hoy

I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but when I go somewhere I don't read up on it a whole lot. I try and get a sense of stuff to do there, of course, but I don't try to become an expert before I arrive. Part of it is probably the malign influence of Paul Theroux, who claims in his travel books not to read about places before he visits, so he can explore them on his own terms. It was in this spirit that I went to Argentina a couple of weeks ago.

Central Buenos Aires, day one

Why Argentina? A number of reasons - the most immediate being that my friend Sita, who writes her own blog "Buenos Aires - Life on the Edge (of a Continent)", has been living there for over a year and invited me down to visit. More generally I've also been fascinated by the place for a long time, since it's where a lot of European (and especially Italian) migration to the New World ended up, and my own grandfather ended up there after World War II, as part of the general Turkish-Armenian diaspora following the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Buenos Aires was pretty different from any other place I've been... though at the same time, parts of it looked a lot like places that I do know. Some neighborhoods looked like any part of Europe, while others were clearly Latin America. It's a country that boasts a history of immigration and diversity, a real melting pot, though the only language I heard on the street other than Spanish was Chinese (and that was only once).

I suppose the first thing that caught me off guard was the sharp division between rich and poor that exists there. This was because, on the cab ride from the airport to Sita's house in Quilmes, the first thing we passed through on leaving the freeway was a pretty wretched-looking slum. I learned that this was the villa (pronounced vee-zha, because of the weird Argentine accent), and it's Argentina's answer to Brazil's favelas - Sita and her husband Alistair said they'd heard gunshots at night once or twice, coming from the villa.

On the other hand, I have a work colleague who lives in the center of town, and her neighborhood might as well have been in Italy. Next door to her building, in fact, was a store that sold artisanal pasta and olive oil. That part of town has the stores and chains you'd recognize, as well as ones that are local, and was mostly peopled by residents who wouldn't look out of place in Turin or London.

The other interesting thing about the city was how artistic it is. The connections to Latin American writers are well-known, with Borges being referenced all over - a cafe across the street from the Recoleta Cemetery has a pretty unnerving fiberglass statue of him at one of the tables - and with poems or extracts from stories about Buenos Aires on the sidewalks in some parts of town.

The view in Recoleta

There's also a number of great museums, of which I caught one of the most famous, the Bellas Artes. It has a great collection of European works dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, and a great gallery of Argentine art as well.

Probably the most distinctive thing I experienced, though - apart from rounding a corner in a cafe on my first day and seeing a couple dancing the tango - was the Palacio Barolo, on my last night in town. It's a skyscraper named for and financed by an Italian businessman who'd come to Argentina in the 1920s, and is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. The number of floors reflects the lines in each canto, and it's divided into sections of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, while also claiming to hold the mortal remains of Dante himself, removed from Italy during World War II. Everything about the place was creepy and evocative though, as we were led on our tour through its darkened corridors by a guide who'd periodically point out a sinister red-robed figure positioned at certain spots in the building.

The other thing I wasn't really expecting was the Armenian community. As I said, I knew that my grandfather had ended up there after the war, and though I didn't manage to discover where he'd been living, my colleague, Sonia, did find an Armenian school and cultural center that does weekly dinners to raise money for class trips to Armenia. It was right across the street from a theater that has the same name as my mom (Siranush), and featured home-cooked Armenian food.

So Buenos Aires, difficult though it could be (for example, trying to find a bus home to Quilmes or determining which streets were safe for me to walk around), was also an excellent introduction to South America. By the end of the week I was navigating the transit between Quilmes and Capital, and within the city proper, without undue problems, and managed to avoid getting caught by muggers or by strikers. And I got to see a little bit outside of town too, when I went to Tigre, a town on the Parana that serves as the summer getaway for Buenos Aires.

Tigre; clearly where Fitzcarraldo ended up

It might not be top of everybody's list of places to visit, but it's good to experience it for yourself - it's a bit schizophrenic but that tension of European and Latin American cultures makes it fascinating. And as Sita can attest, it's even (mostly) safe for vegetarians - though I did have a couple of decent steaks, because it's the thing you do when you go there.
Pretty damn balanced meal, no?

Thursday, 26 May 2016

RIP Darwyn Cooke

I know this comes a little late, but thought I'd share some thoughts on Darwyn Cooke's passing nearly two weeks ago. I didn't know much of his work, but what I did know was DC: The New Frontier, which I picked up a few years ago, on a whim, during a period of my life in which I wasn't really reading comics.

I'd known about it for a while, as I'd heard people mention it in the same breath as The Golden Age, another of my favorite comics stories, so when I got the opportunity to check it out, I was blown away. For a start, the art was gorgeous - Cooke's style was classic and clean, and therefore well-suited to the setting spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s.

And in terms of story, it had everything. It sat kind of within and beside canon, which gave Cooke a lot of room to play with all of the characters that he used - most heartbreakingly in the case of "John Henry", who we later see as an inspiration for John Henry Irons, the kid who grew up to become Steel. But my favorite part of the story was the way it placed each of DC's Silver Age characters in chronological order, so that Barry Allen in his story becomes the new Flash three years before Hal Jordan becomes the new Green Lantern.

For me, The New Frontier works as the middle book in a trilogy of The Golden Age and Kingdom Come, as all three deal with epochal changes affecting every character in the DC Universe. It's not as dark as those two other stories, but too much darkness wouldn't have fit with those characters and that setting - and yet I can think of no higher compliment than to rank a story among them.

More recently, I was pleased to see his name featured among the artists who worked on Batman: The Animated Series. I didn't know who Cooke was in the 1990s, when I was watching the show, and I didn't know about the connection when I read The New Frontier, but it feels right, given Bruce Timm's devotion to classic Batman adventures.

Darwyn Cooke will be sorely missed - and I look forward both to rereading The New Frontier, as well as checking out his work on books like Solo and Catwoman.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Congratulations to Leicester City, the 2015-16 Premier League Champions



I've already talked about what this would mean, if it were to happen, but that was then, when it was only possible, and this is now, when it's actually happened. Claudio Ranieri really has won a title, Jamie Vardy has worked his way up from non-league to owning a champion's medal, and a deeply unfancied team has gone on to win the Premier League and upset the natural order of top-flight English football.

Of course, I don't want to get too swept away here. Chelsea and Manchester City are going to invest heavily after their respective train-wrecks, and Leicester themselves are going to have to deal with yet another competition to sap their focus - the Champions League.

If Manchester City and Chelsea have screwed the pooch this season, the likes of Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich haven't had similar stumbles. Or rather, they have, in that Juve had a shitty start to their season (but then embarked on a ridiculous unbeaten streak to win Serie A) and Barcelona won't be able to confirm their champion status until the final day. But you take my point.

Still, I also don't want to be too gloomy. It will be interesting to see how Leicester gets on against the very best of Europe, having earned their right to be there. If they can keep the core of their team together (and why shouldn't they? Riyad Mahrez or Jamie Vardy or N'Golo Kanté don't need to move anywhere else to find Champions League football), they can at least have a good go at it. If Barcelona or Real Madrid beat them, they'll still have made it to the party.

The other question will be how Leicester get on in the Premier League next season. There'll be a lot of teams gunning for them, and they'll be desperate to strengthen. It'll just be harder for Leicester to repeat this year's achievement - but on the other hand, it'd be boring if they did (and I say this as a Juve fan who's hoping that the rest of Serie A can mount a challenge to my team).

Whatever happens next season, the importance of Leicester winning this season is incalculable: they've shown how other teams can do it. And now that the TV deal funds are trickling down to the mid-level clubs, it will be easier for other teams to do it.

Friday, 29 April 2016

2016: The Year the Music Died

I'm clearly not the only person noticing how ridiculously many high-profile celebrity deaths there have been this year. I remember surfing to the AV Club late one night, unable to sleep, and discovering that David Bowie had died - followed by the sick feeling as Alan Rickman passed away, followed by (among others) Garry Shandling, and now Prince.

It feels like even before Prince died I was joking (somewhat darkly) to myself that every visit to the AV Club portended another celebrity death. And I haven't done any RIP posts on Shandling or Prince because, in all honesty, I wasn't that familiar with their work. Both certainly influenced a lot of artists that I like, and finding out more about their work is something I'm looking forward to (heck, I'm even considering signing up to Tidal, because Prince's music isn't on YouTube or Spotify).

But my other thought about all these deaths is, are we really seeing more deaths than usual? I'm not about to do a meta-analysis of recent years, to determine whether we've really seen the highest number - there's a line even I won't cross.

And besides, what I'm questioning is whether or not we're only noticing this now because it's a certain cohort of entertainers who are disappearing. Bowie is most associated with the 70s, Prince with the 80s, and you could map Rickman and Shandling in a similar way. None of them was ridiculously old, but neither were they kids (although I concede that Prince's death at 57 or Phife Dawg's at 45 are particularly untimely).

I guess the point I'm making is, none of us is getting any younger, and the deaths we're used to are the ones that affect our parents (or grandparents). Our cohort of musicians, actors, writers, etc is generally older than we are, and bad things can happen at any time, so I suspect that this is just going to be the new normal. I think it would be more worrying if we were seeing younger cohorts all passing away suddenly at the same time - to give a particularly nerdy example, the original cast of Babylon 5, which aired in the 1990s, has effectively been decimated, while the original Star Trek's cast is mostly still around, even if they're much older.

Maybe this is all too morbid for a Friday night, but for all the unfortunate news about all these celebrity deaths, I think we need to settle in for it to continue. Just... if whoever's in charge of this could ease off for a few months, that would be great too.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

In Defense of Learning Useless Skills, or, Why You Should Learn Portuguese

So here's a weird thing that's been happening all weekend. Whenever I've mentioned to someone that I'm learning Portuguese, their first reaction has been, "Why?"

My response has generally been, "Why not?", which I'm told isn't always a satisfying answer (my reply to that is invariably also, "Why not?"). But I find it striking that one of the world's most spoken languages is so invisible.

Brazil has 205 million Portuguese speakers, there are 10 million more in Portugal, and this number goes up when you include speakers in Africa (like Angola) and Asia (like East Timor). Brazil is the largest country in South America, and the largest economy, which is why Portuguese is one of the official languages of Mercosur, the regional trading bloc.

This all makes Portuguese the sixth most-spoken language in the world, and Brazil is the fifth largest country by population - more people speak Portuguese than Italian or German, for instance, both languages that are much more popular among language students. And yet here in the US, we don't have any real understanding of the place. Europe has maybe a tiny bit more understanding of Brazil, but I'd argue that (Portugal aside) that's mostly because of all the Brazilian footballers who pitch up to play in Europe.

But I'm not here to talk up Brazil or the Portuguese language, or even to defend why I'm learning it. I'm actually slightly more interested in the question of why I need to defend learning it in the first place.

It turns out to be a really interesting moment for language learning. Like a lot of folks, I'm currently using Duolingo, but also other apps (like Mango or even YouTube). I believe these apps are so popular because they're free and don't require users to learn languages in specific places, at specific times. Duo's particular genius (beyond gamifying the process of language learning) is also to crowdsource the creation of language courses, which means that if you can get together enough people you can design a course in Dutch, Turkish, even Irish or Esperanto.

I think for the dedicated language-learning community, there's probably no language that needs justification. But whereas knowledge of certain languages used to be assumed among the erudite (French, Latin and Greek, to be precise), now there seems to be this idea that you have to have a specific purpose for learning a language, and that it has to be "useful". For instance, I recently saw a post from Robert Reich on Facebook lamenting that he'd learned French instead of Spanish, because of demographic pressures that mean Spanish is the most widely spoken second language in the US.

But by knowing French, Robert Reich has access to the wide range of French art, literature and cinema that have come down through the years, and he can go visit not only Europe, but large parts of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as parts of Southeast Asia (and Quebec or Louisiana). This isn't to slight the literary and cultural canon of the Spanish-speaking world, but I find his comments a tiny bit odd.

In my own case, I chose to learn German for the noblest of reasons (a crush on a German-speaking Swiss girl in high school), but it ended up opening a bunch of doors that I never expected it to - by continuing my German studies in college, I was then able to go study in Germany for a year, which led to my first job, my graduate school course and all of my subsequent jobs.

This is because nobody seems to be learning German anymore (my high school no longer offers it). Yet Germany remains one of the world's largest economies, even if it's not on the level of China or India. Also, while English-speakers are pretty common in Germany, I wouldn't say English-language skills are as universal as they are in the Netherlands or Scandinavia. So if you need to find out what's happening in Germany's pharmaceutical or telecoms sector, you're better off finding someone who knows the language.

(As an aside, I feel this is a great example of why immigration helps a country. As an immigrant in the UK, I wasn't taking jobs away from British graduates - because there apparently weren't any who spoke German and were looking for these kinds of jobs. My employers - three of them in this case - were all forced to hire me, an immigrant, because the supply of native-born German-speakers was insufficient. Food for thought).

The point I'm making with my own history is that if you make an effort to learn a certain skill, regardless of how "useful" it'll be, having that skill opens up opportunities that you may never have considered. Wanting to do something specific with a language skill (or any other skill) is fine, but if someone has to choose between learning a "useful" language and one that interests them, I'd always go with the one that interests them. It'll help them keep going when they run into difficulties, for one thing, and the uses will come up later, when they've mastered the skill.

Just as importantly, it shows the importance of fishing in waters that aren't too crowded. A friend once suggested that he'd want his kids to learn Mandarin Chinese, so that they'd be better placed to get jobs when they grow up. This isn't faulty reasoning, but how will that differentiate them from all the other graduates their age whose parents had the same idea? I told him to get them started on coding instead, because there's still likely to be a skills gap for that when they're older.

I'm finding that, more and more, the thing that makes someone attractive to employers (and possibly to acquaintances, romantic partners, etc) is a mix of skills, rather than specialization in one specific thing that everybody's also doing. And learning languages - particularly the "less useful" ones - is going to be a force multiplier as the globalized world becomes more connected.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Gosh, but Batman vs Superman looks unappealing

You know what? I'm probably not going to go see Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice in theaters.

I've been thinking about this for a few days, ever since I started to see reviews. The reviews I've read have all singled out the humorlessness, violence and borderline fascism of the characters, and so I'm here to say, enough. I didn't enjoy Man of Steel, the film of which BvS is a sequel (or to be precise, I liked it in the moment and have liked it less every time I've thought about it since), and I'm getting frustrated with the world-building in movie franchises, which I kind of believe has been responsible for ruining comics. So I'm done.

Partly I'm also inspired by the AV Club's essay this week asking why everyone's always so determined to see Batman fight Superman. As the author, Tim O'Neil, points out, there are two essential problems with that scenario:

1. Batman and Superman are pals. Leaving aside the silly, sitcom-like stories of the 50s, where Lois Lane was trying to scam on both of them, O'Neil argues (rightly) that they're both working toward the same thing - justice.

2. The other thing is that there's really no contest. Unless Batman is *really* prepared, Superman's going to take him out as easily as you or I can crush a bug. This isn't an attempt to be inflammatory or stake my space in the fanboy wars - if you accept that Superman's the most powerful being on Earth, it's simple logic that he could destroy Batman before Batman even knew he was in trouble. Mark Waid touches on this a bit in his series Irredeemable, which is effectively a "Superman goes crazy" story.

Now, there are good story reasons why you'd pit the two characters against one another, notably Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Mark Waid & Alex Ross's Kingdom Come, and I'm rather taken myself with the idea of Batman being able to take out Superman (see? *That's* my spot in the fanboy wars). And from what I know of BvS, Batman's mistrust of Superman does sound reasonable, given the awful, headache-inducing violence of Man of Steel.

But that previous film was based on a fundamental misreading of the character of Superman. I've listened to a couple of podcasts where David Goyer, the film's writer, has justified the decisions he made for that film - or rather, where he justified the bit about Superman killing Zod.

The way Goyer explained it, Superman at that point in his life didn't know how to neutralize Zod without killing him, or to put it another way, hadn't yet learned how to be Superman. But...

The story of how Superman kills Zod in the comics is about him being forced into an action that betrays his core principles, and about how he deals with that decision for the rest of his life. Nothing that I've seen of Goyer and director Zack Snyder's Superman suggests that they are interested in telling that kind of story. Rather, they seem to be more interested in telling a post-modern Superman story, insofar as I understand post-modernism to be "the New Unpleasantness". And gosh, is this latest version of Superman (and Batman) unpleasant.

You may ask why I'm so worked up about this. After all, it's just a movie, the season's first summer tentpole actioner, to throw a bunch of (possibly incorrect) movie jargon at you. It's also essentially the same plot as the upcoming Captain America film, Civil War, which will pit Cap against Iron Man. But I'd argue that taking two symbols of post-war American culture and turning them into amoral, sociopathic fascists does matter.

We're at a pretty dangerous point in our culture right now: there are existential threats at home (yes, sorry, but I have to call Donald Drumpf and Ted Cruz existential threats to America) and abroad (IS and al Qaeda). We're also seeing a diminution of our status abroad, owing to a string of really shitty choices we've been making since the end of World War II (you thought I was going to say 9/11, didn't you?), and we're responding by crawling back into isolationism, xenophobia and complete mistrust in "the establishment".

Batman and Superman once represented ideals that were admirable. One was the pinnacle of human perfection, aimed at the cause of eradicating crime and ensuring that no one else would suffer the same trauma he experienced. The other was meant to be the personification of America's highest and best ideals, fighting injustice with the physical strength that was (and still is) denied to common people.

But now we've bought into the fundamental misunderstanding of these characters as sociopaths and aloof demigods, and it reflects our own feelings of powerlessness as our jobs disappear and as the world (seemingly) grows more violent and dangerous every day. Batman and Superman have gone from being symbols of hope to stand-ins for the increasingly aloof political class that's consolidated its power through gerrymandering, fear-mongering and immoral campaign financing laws.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. We know what's right, and it isn't murdering terrorists' families or allowing politicians to pit us against each other. It's also not supporting a film that, from all accounts, plays into our own worst impulses.

Or, to put it in terms of another Batman movie, BvS is neither the superhero film we need, nor the one we deserve. Go watch the Flash instead, and have some fun.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Grimm: how a bad show becomes better

My latest TV obsession, beyond the CW's Arrow and Flash, and my rewatch of Batman: the Animated Series, has been NBC's supernatural cop show, Grimm. Not too long ago I'd have put it down as a guilty pleasure, something schlocky but fun, but over the course of four full seasons, and a fifth season in progress, it's turned into a pretty decent show.

The premise is of a Portland cop who discovers that he can see monsters from out of legend, and that he has the power to hunt them. I kind of need to talk about what happens at various points, so consider this your spoiler warning:

It's always fun to dust this picture off, btw.

When it started, Grimm was, as I said, just a bit schlocky - Nick Burckhardt, the hero, is essentially a super-hero who fights enemies with bizarre (and mispronounced) German names - for instance, werewolves are known as "Blutbaden", which translates to bloodbath. Over time he draws more and more characters into his secret world, from his partner Hank, to his Blutbad friend Monroe and finally his girlfriend, Juliette.

Juliette, unfortunately, was a character that they didn't know what to do with, almost from the very start, and so she would get saddled with some pretty dumb storylines. One example is the beginning of the second season, where she's placed under a spell in which she doesn't remember Nick, and is madly in love with his boss, Sean Renard, into the bargain.

And yet, when they decided to turn her into a Hexenbiest in Season 4, that quickly became the show's high point, as everybody's shocked reactions to her new powers quickly pushed her toward the dark side. I was left totally holy-shitted at the end of the season, where she goes so evil that she causes the death of Nick's mom and then gets killed herself.

She now seems to be back, because in superhero stories death is never the end, but what I love is that all of it, from her evil-ness to her death and her re-emergence working for a secret organization, feels organic. Not only was she given an incredible level of power, but the fact that the people around her, including her fiance, quickly became afraid of her, felt like the most logical choices to take her story.

I mean, ignoring the facts of how she got her powers, which is a little bit ridiculously complicated, but let's move on...

I suppose what I find fascinating about the show is that it started out, as I said, little more than a guilty pleasure. A bunch of storylines failed to go anywhere over the course of the first few seasons, characters have changed sides more times than I can count, but somehow, the creators still managed to pull it all together into something that I don't feel I have to hide anymore.

For a show to start out bad and then turn good isn't so atypical, but what's remarkable is that Grimm has managed to do it at the end of its fourth season. Star Trek: the Next Generation, for example, didn't get good until its third season, while the Big Bang Theory only hit its stride in Season 2 (and now is pretty bad again).

The other interesting thing about Grimm is, as of Season 4 it was NBC's second-longest running drama, after Law & Order: SVU. Clearly it was doing just well enough in its time slot for NBC to keep it going, and that consistency has allowed its writers to figure out its strengths.

Which is, I suppose, yet another example of why consistency is so important, whether in physical pursuits or creative ones. I just hope that Grimm can maintain this streak of quality long enough to take the show in for a dignified landing, unlike (for example) the X-Files, which dropped off pretty sharply in quality around its sixth season.

But I think that even if Grimm does drop off again, I'll still be able to come back for the bad German pronunciations and the laughable CGI. Not everything can be Mr. Robot, can it?

Monday, 15 February 2016

Why I want Leicester City to win the Premier League

Like a lot of folks, I've been following this year's English Premier League title race more avidly than usual, for the simple reason that, in a lot of ways, the table's been turned upside down. There's still about a third of the season left, so any of the traditional powers could reassert themselves, but the main highlight has been how Premiership minnows Leicester City have managed to carve out a place for themselves at the top, after having come so close last year to being relegated.

At the moment there are four title contenders: Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City. Winning would be a great narrative for any of these teams, although to different degrees (oddly enough, in the order that I've listed them, which also happens to be their ranking in the league as of this past weekend). But I'm more invested in Leicester winning, for a number of reasons.

The first is the fairytale aspect of it all. As I said, they came within a few games of being relegated last season, and managed to save themselves in the last seven matches of the season. I think everybody was expecting them to go down this season, but instead they've carried on their form and now sit, quite improbably, in first place. More importantly, if they win the league, this will be their first top-flight title ever - their highest placing was second, in the 1920s - and this will be the first time since 1995 that a less-fancied team wins the title (Blackburn being the champions that year).

Another reason I'm hoping Leicester wins this season is Claudio Ranieri, the manager they hired for the start of this title campaign. For years, he had a reputation in English football as the "tinkerman", a kind of buffoonish figure who couldn't leave well enough alone. He was the manager of Chelsea when Roman Abramovich bought the club, and was let go somewhat shabbily after having guided them to second place.

After leaving Chelsea, Ranieri bounced around Europe, including stints back at home in Italy, but his star was possibly at its lowest ebb ever when Leicester hired him, as he'd just come off a disastrous four-match spell in charge of the Greek national team. He'd just overseen Greece failing to qualify for the upcoming European Championships, and guided the Greeks to two losses (home and away) against the Faroe Islands, a country of about 57,000 way out in the North Sea whose main claim to fame is puffins and sheep. So folks in England were justifiably apprehensive when he was hired, but I'm pleased to see that he's confounded all the doubters and rescued his reputation.

The third reason I'm hoping Leicester win it all is their main striker, Jamie Vardy. He was plying his trade further down the divisions not long ago, at the likes of Stocksbridge Park Steels and Fleetwood Town, but from there has helped fire Leicester into first, while also picking up a record for scoring in the most consecutive games since Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Admittedly Vardy's had something of a checkered past, having been tagged for assault and racial abuse, but the signs seem to point to a real rehabilitation, which can only have helped his focus on his way to this record. Apparently there's even a screenwriter following him around, with the intention of writing a Jamie Vardy biopic.

Of course, Vardy's achievement isn't meant to overshadow the rest of his teammates, including Riyad Mahrez, the French-born Algerian international player who's also emerged from the obscurity of the lower leagues to make a name for himself, or Robert Huth, a German defender who also seemed to disappear after leaving Chelsea.

So these are the reasons I'm rooting for Leicester, and why I'm sure large parts of the English public are too (apart from fans of local rivals Coventry, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, of course). In fact, my cousin in Italy tells me that people there are following Leicester's exploits too, so it wouldn't be off base to assume that a lot of Europe is behind the plucky underdogs, who have, of course, shown themselves to be contenders this season.

Sure, Spurs stand to win their first Premier League trophy, and their first top-flight trophy since 1961, which would be an amazing achievement too. And Arsenal, if they win, will take home their first title in 12 years, since their "Invincible" season. Man City, meanwhile, would cement their place as the top club in Manchester over hated rivals United, while also giving their outgoing coach Manuel Pellegrini a last gift before Pep Guardiola (formerly of Barcelona and Bayern Munich) takes the reins.

But Leicester would be a win for (most of) the rest of England. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski note that titles in Europe typically go to one or two of the big cities. London and Manchester have shared almost all of the titles in the Premier League days (Blackburn is just 20 miles from Manchester), and that ever harder for smaller teams, from smaller cities, to break in. Leicester winning would spread the honors around, just as their success is (surely) being financed by an epic TV rights deal that seems to have raised all Premier League clubs, rather than just the top two or three.

So it's Leicester for me this year - surely they'll collapse again next season, and Pep Guardiola will launch Manchester City to a new period of dominance. But in the meantime, I'm reveling in a Premier League season where just about anything can happen, and has.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Some Men Just Want to See the World Burn: Why Donald Trump is the Joker

Just a quick one this week, as I prepare for the Super Bowl this afternoon, but I've been thinking about this all week. Specifically, how Donald Trump is not just A joker, but also THE Joker, ie Batman's archenemy.

So I was stretching my legs the other day at work with a quick walk around the neighborhood, and as so often happens, my mind started wandering to what I'd do and say if I were running for president. And given that nobody seems to know how to respond to Donald Trump's various incivilities, I was wondering how it would go down if some just told him to fuck off.

It occurred to me that, satisfying as that would be, it would mark his total victory in the way politics is played these days, because it would have meant whoever told him to fuck off would have fallen to his level. This isn't, btw, a question of standards and "fair play" and all that bullshit - telling Donald Trump to fuck off means that he's gotten under your skin, and effectively turned you into his own mirror image.

And, because Batman is never too far from my thoughts, it occurred to me that this is the same dynamic that Batman has with the Joker. The Joker's whole M.O. is to corrupt people, and Batman remains the biggest prize of all - if the Joker could get Batman to kill someone, even (or especially) the Joker himself, that shows that the Joker's been right all along. To put it another way, the Joker wants to show that society is an illusion, and people are all raging beasts underneath it all; while Batman represents the people who work in the shadows to make the rest of us safe, at least as Christopher Nolan's films would have it, he maintains a very strict line that he won't cross.

So how does this apply to Donald Trump? Well, without questioning his motives, it's fair to say that he's certainly appealing to the very worst tendencies in the American electorate at the moment. He's telling people the things they long to hear - that everybody's laughing at us (which they are, but not for the reason he thinks), that we're being swindled (again, not by the people he says are swindling us) and that he can fix it all.

Given that so many are still feeling the after-effects of the latest recession (btw, when do we get to start calling it a depression? It's been going on for the best part of a decade at this point...), and so many are terrified of what's happening in the rest of the world with ISIS and civil wars and drug wars, I think a lot of the simple answers he's peddling are comforting. And, not very many of the candidates on either side of the aisle are talking about how to make Americans feel better (despite being an ardent Democrat and leaning toward Bernie Sanders, I have to say that Sanders doesn't strike me as very strong on foreign policy).

But the problem is that Trump is encouraging people to give vent to their darkest impulses. The short term answer to international terrorism may seem to be "Close the borders", but we'll be safer if we take on ISIS and Al Qaeda (and, for that matter, Vladimir Putin) with a view to long-term solutions, and in an adult way.

In the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's second Batman film, the climax of the Joker's plan is to wire up two ships with explosives, one full of convicts and the other full of civilians, and essentially dare them not to blow the other up. The "law-abiding" citizens loudly insist on their right to take a vote, and driven by fear, vote to blow up the other ship. The convicts, on the other hand... don't.

The Joker's plan was to turn the people of the city against one another - and Donald Trump, whether or not he means to, is doing the same. But we're better than what he's telling us we are, and we deserve candidates who know that.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The X-Files Awakens

Well, this is shaping up to be a month of resurgences for long-dormant SF franchises. After the new Star Wars, which seems to have swept away a bunch of records, the X-Files has also made its return to TV screens, almost 14 years after it ended. Naturally, I was ready to watch it, even when it looked as if it wouldn't be on until 10pm, though luckily, that turned out to refer to the Eastern time zone, and it actually aired on the West Coast at 7.30pm.

Like The Force Awakens, the new episode of the X-Files attempts to ignore all the crap that came most recently (although Force Awakens had the advantage of being a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, whereas this doesn't). What it does offer is the main characters (ie, the ones we came to see) picking up where they left off; it also offers a bunch of references and throwbacks to the past, in the shape of supporting characters.

But if I gave The Force Awakens a solid B/B+, and felt the need to watch it a second time, I'd say this new X-Files is a shade less successful. While the X-Files was always heavily associated with its creator, Chris Carter (similar to Babylon 5 with J. Michael Straczynski), the consensus of the last few years seems to be that the very best episodes were written by others: Vince Gilligan, for one, or Glen Morgan and James Wong. The mythology episodes, which ended up dragging the show down to a certain extent, tended to be written by Carter.

And so it proves here. While Carter did a good job in this first episode of not bogging things down too much with the past - we see Mulder, we see Scully, we see Skinner and we see aliens (or do we?) - the episode doesn't quite hit the heights of the first few seasons.

It's hard to say why, save that certain scenes really showed the script - by which I mean, the actors' delivery felt like they were reading lines, rather than living the scene. Carter's scripts/dialogue weren't always top-notch, but David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were always good enough actors that it didn't matter. Maybe here they were just a bit rusty?

On the other hand, while the story here isn't as tense and creepy as, say, the pilot, it's good to see them picking up essentially where it left off, and even addressing the time in between. I always found it odd how the X-Files didn't seem to fit into the post-9/11 world, and some of the exposition delves into why it was absent for, arguably, the time we needed it most. Another positive is how well it takes up the thread of what's current now - drones, the internet, right-wing conspiracy theorists - and weaves it together into something coherent.

In any case, one of the things that's gotten me really excited about this mini-series (or "event", as Fox likes to call it) is that not all of the six episodes will be mythology episodes. The creators (including a returning Morgan and Wong, apparently) have promised a survey of all the stuff that made the X-Files great, from monster-of-the-week stories to the funnier episodes that the show used to do so well.

Also, despite my comments earlier about the most recent crap, I'm genuinely excited that Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) will be making an appearance. She was part of the cast of the final season, when Duchovny left the show, and thought she did a creditable job partnering with Gillian Anderson and with Robert Patrick as John Doggett - I just hope Doggett makes an appearance too.

So... yeah, I'll be watching. Maybe not tomorrow, but I certainly plan on keeping up via Hulu or Comcast on-demand or whatever. Like Star Wars, the X-Files was one of the formative shows of my teen years (and beyond). So, like Star Wars, I'm happy that it's come back in a format that honors what made it great in the first place, while also moving forward.

Now, if the new Star Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, turns out to be better than that trailer, we'll be set...