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Sunday, 10 December 2017

America's Increasing Reliance on Recreational Substances

I've recently noticed a pair of contradictory trends in media and advertising, when it comes to recreational substances (I can't think of a better catch-all term for alcohol and other legal drugs, as well as illegal ones).

The first one relates to the imminent legalization of marijuana here in California, and specifically to the increase of advertising for dispensaries and delivery services. The one that bothers me most is Eaze, which is currently running a billboard along the 101 freeway that says "Hello marijuana, goodbye stress".

The other one is the increase in thinkpieces, primarily by women, examining how alcohol consumption has become a must for Americans (but primarily women) to "take the edge off" stressful lives of dealing with work, romantic partners and children. It's so prevalent that at one of the gyms I go to, the cute slogans on the exercise tank-tops include stuff like "Does running out of wine count as cardio?".

The first one isn't so much a problem without the second, but together they're painting a pretty worrying picture. Essentially, they're normalizing the idea that we need substances to get through our day, whether that's coffee to wake up in the morning, booze to wind down in the evening, or weed (or stronger stuff) to make the weekends pass by faster. If you think about it, that's a pretty dangerous idea overall.

(Full disclosure: I'm drinking a bottle of Mexican Pepsi as I type, so I'm not fully free of caffeine addiction myself)

The statistics page on AmericanAddictionCenters.org says that 21.5 million Americans age 12 and up battled substance use disorders in 2014, of which 80% had alcohol use disorders. Seven million had drug use disorders, and one in eight suffered from concurrent alcohol and drug use disorders.

For specific drugs, daily marijuana users among full-time college students increased threefold compared with 1994, to 6%. Overall, around 4.2 million Americans aged 11 and up had marijuana use disorders in 2014. This is compared with 2 million for opioid-based painkillers. But alcohol's the biggest one, with around 16.6 million Americans aged 18 and up battling alcohol problems in 2013.

America's not the only country with a drinking problem, of course. Britain's famous for it, and the high taxation in Scandinavian countries doesn't prevent Swedes and Norwegians from having frightful numbers of alcoholics. Even Italy, which saw a 23% decline in alcohol consumption between 2006 and 2014 and has one of the lowest rates of alcoholism in Europe, is still seeing growth in binge-drinking behaviors.

But because I'm here in the US, and am steeped in the culture here all the time, I feel more comfortable saying that recreational substances are more clearly positioned as a crutch here than they are in other countries. I have trouble imagining my relatives in Italy talking about reducing their stress with a bottle of wine - rather, it'd be a pleasurable thing to have with dinner (or maybe lunch).

I'm not saying that we shouldn't drink booze or smoke weed or enjoy the odd caffeinated drink, of course. But we should be consuming them more mindfully, and more aware of why we're consuming them. As I say, I have my own low-key caffeine addiction, which I continue to feed because I consider it more trouble to go through the withdrawal headache and whatnot. But interestingly, because I don't drink coffee, I don't take in that much, and am consequently not dependent on caffeine to wake up every morning. If I can get a glass of iced tea or a Coke in me with lunch (or frequently even later) then I'm good.

It's worth remembering that we consider caffeine and alcohol essential crutches to getting through our days because the companies that sell us coffee and beer depend on it. We associate booze with good times because we've seen commercials showing people having a good time at bars, and because we've had good times at bars we then strengthen the association in our own minds. That said, what we maybe forget is that we're having that good time because we're with people that we like (usually) - it's a lot harder to have an epic time at a bar on your own.

The other thing is that for a lot of us the day-to-day is pretty shitty. We need money to survive, so we take on jobs that either suck, or that start off great but eventually suck. Our relationships have ups and downs, and people around us get sick or die, sometimes suddenly and sometimes over a long period of time. And behind all of that is the knowledge that at some point we're going to die - if you really stop to think of those implications then you can't be blamed for wanting a stiff shot of scotch.

Where we're going wrong as a culture is in using recreational substances as a way to never face up to those things. The energy we spend in acquiring alcohol, weed, caffeine or harder substances could be spent in finding better jobs or starting side hustles or even simply cleaning up the damn house (this one's directed at me). The danger is that by always turning to booze or weed or whatever to intensify being happy or sad or angry, we lose the ability to experience those emotions naturally, and we lose the ability to cope with them healthily. This is Chris Hardwick's takeaway from his own experience with alcohol addiction, as related in The Nerdist Way: getting off booze was only the first step, and when he managed that he still had to learn how to deal with emotions in a healthy way.

The reason I'm bringing this up is not to say that weed or alcohol should be illegal. But simply legalizing drugs, without taking into account how they're marketed or used, is as bad a strategy for winning the war on drugs as banning everything has proven. Weed may not make people beat each other up the way booze does, but if legalizing marijuana creates a generation of zombies who can't muster up the enthusiasm to do anything but smoke, then we're not seeing a net win here.

I don't see myself giving up caffeine, and I don't see myself giving up booze, just as I don't see myself taking up regular pot consumption. But as a culture we need to think more carefully about how and why we consume these substances, because if we're only ever using them to relieve "stress" rather than as an adjunct to a pleasurable interaction with friends and family, then we're in big trouble.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Importance of Social Networks

So I was quite suddenly let go from my job on Friday, as my position was made "redundant". This is the British term for layoff, which I prefer to use as it's more evocative of why the decision was made to terminate someone's employment - to say "let go" can be ambiguous as to whether that was because of cost-cutting or because the employee was not particularly good.

In any case, it was a bit of a shock, which I'm still processing (and working my way through the various stages of separation, eg denial, anger, bargaining, and so on). But what's helped, at least in these first couple of days, is the response of friends and family. I've been helped by them to indulge in numerous vices, ranging from beers to frozen yogurt to tacos, which is quite nice. After all, who wants to consider their diet when they've just lost their job?

The other thing is in offers of help and expressions of moral support. It's too early to tell whether any of these will lead to new jobs or sources of income, but the important thing for now is that they're there, and that people who can potentially help me are aware that I need help. I did this by posting my news on Facebook on Friday and asking people to let me know if they heard of any leads.

As I say, it might not go anywhere, and I'll probably be relying on my LinkedIn network rather than Facebook, but again, it's important people should know what I'm looking for. It's easy to dismiss Facebook as a place to post exclusively positive things, but for stuff like this it's worthwhile getting support from people you know, whether they're local to you or not.

In any case, time will tell what comes of this, but I'm hoping for a speedy return to earning a regular income and access to benefits like healthcare. With what's happened in the news lately, that latter will be most important of all.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Weird Counterfactuals from the 2016 Election

I read the Guardian's interview with Susan Sarandon this morning, which leads with the provocative idea that if Hillary Clinton had won the election we'd be at war right now. My first reaction was "Fuck off", but I decided to skim the article and see what else she had to say. The Clinton stuff is pretty minor, but it got me thinking that the current wave of sexual harassment allegations and resignations would probably not be happening right now if we'd elected our first female president.

It's kind of an odd thing to think about, and I'm clearly not the only person thinking about it, since this article quoting Nancy Pelosi also showed up on the Guardian today. But it also reminded me of an article on fivethirtyeight.com where Nate Silver provided "dispatches" from the parallel universe where Clinton won the election.

That was before the Harvey Weinstein allegations came up, unleashing the flood that has taken down Kevin Spacey and Louis CK, and that's drawn attention on Al Franken and Roy Moore, so the biggest counterfactual Silver came up with (as I recall) was that the UK's election this past June would have strengthened Theresa May's Conservatives, rather than the diminished majority they got in reality.

But it's pretty clear that because Donald Trump's "locker room talk" on the infamous Access Hollywood tape didn't kill his presidency, we've been looking at this kind of behavior much more closely than we might have otherwise. After all, the women's marches back in January, on the weekend of the inauguration, were in response to his clear misogyny and lack of remorse over that and other actions he's taken that are pretty fucking gross.

Before any conspiracy theorists twist my words, it's clear that the accusations against Weinstein would probably have come out anyway, regardless of who was president, but it's fair to ask whether they would have taken on this life of their own and spread to other malefactors. Because the real issue around the accusations against Weinstein is that it touched off the #metoo thing, where many women felt they were able to share their stories. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of #metoo posts, both from people I know and shared from celebrities.

It's sort of cliche to say that Trump's election emboldened racists and whoever to come out into the open, but it's also true that as I walked on the treadmill at the gym that inauguration weekend I was next to two guys who were referring to the women's marchers as "rainbow dykes" and other pleasant names. It's hard to see them having that same conversation if the women's marches hadn't happened.

And that, in turn, is likely what led to a lot of women deciding they'd taken enough shit in their lives. After the Santa Barbara shootings, social media got divided between #notallmen (which is the #alllivesmatter of gender politics) and #yesallwomen, and unfortunately didn't take on the critical mass that #metoo is taking. Luckily, #metoo is phrased in such a way that assholes can't jump up and muddy the waters with semantics - there's no obvious response.

The other way is in the dominoes that have fallen since Trump took office. Clinton wouldn't have tapped Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, so his seat wouldn't have come up for election, and Roy Moore would just be this asshole known only to people in Alabama politics but few others. The accusations against him would still have come up, but if it were now, they wouldn't have the force they currently do, given that they dovetail with the wider #metoo movement; if he'd been up for the seat later, they'd probably have sunk because they didn't come on the tail of these others.

In either case, they wouldn't be the instructive example they are now, of a GOP that's so lost its way that it would rather have a safe vote for its agenda who's a pedophile. It's damaging not only because it makes a mockery of its standing as the party of traditional values (whatever that means), but also because they're clearly afraid of going out and selling their ideas. Their way or the highway.

So while this is a difficult time for all people of good conscience, there's a glimmer of a possibility that the big mistake our country made last November could make people more conscious of these issues. I won't say it'll definitely lead to a better environment for women, but we have the opportunity to improve things, and it's all because we're seeing how bad "bad" could get. Hopefully not too many people get hurt in other ways while we get back on the right track.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Self-policing social media

Just a quick PSA this week. We've been seeing Twitter taking a stand on accounts that broadcast hate, and/or that belong to neo-Nazis and other forms of racists (I don't like to use "white nationalist" because it obscures what these guys are actually preaching), and that's a long overdue step.

However, my PSA is a reminder that these things are self-policing, to a certain extent. I don't know about you, but when I first started using social media and playing online games, I'd see people being racist or homophobic, and I'd roll my eyes, wring my hands and wonder why the worst people congregate on the internet.

In one case, some brat on World of Warcraft thought the expression "sand niggers" was so hilarious that he (I'm assuming it was a he) copied and pasted it repeatedly on a group chat. I played on, without interacting with this person, and then mentioned it to my flatmate, who also played, in a what-can-you-do sort of way. And he just said, "Report it."

I haven't had much call to think about that exchange until recently (since 20 January 2017, to be precise), but it's stuck with me, and I've found myself taking that advice much more often. I'm also proud to say that almost all of the accounts I've reported have been found by Twitter to be in violation.

My reporting them probably didn't tip the balance either way, but it does feel like taking a stand, in a very low-stakes kind of way, for the type of online environment I'd like to see. It's not about stifling free speech, because I don't report people who are being jerks, and it's not about protecting myself from opposing viewpoints, because Nazis and white supremacists are not viewpoints that belong in the mainstream (mainly because why the fuck should you debate the merits of an ideology that wants to annihilate you?).

It's also a response to the nihilism of certain folks, usually young white guys, who like to make comments like this but then write them off as jokes. We can give the likes of PewDiePie the benefit of the doubt (but only the first time), but if they're just spouting racist and anti-Semitic comments to get laughs, we need to let them know it's not funny.

This is different from the Nazi-punching argument that erupted on the internet back in January when Richard Spencer getting punched turned into a meme. You might persuade yourself not to do anything by telling yourself that some racist is just going to report Black Lives Matter or something, but so what? If someone reports me for saying that I think the police shouldn't extrajudicially murder black people, Twitter's going to reject that report immediately, because that statement is not an incitement to race war or to go out and hurt anyone.

(BTW, I'm not only singling out white supremacists here. The reason my examples have all been related to Nazis is that in my day-to-day life I've never come across Islamist fundamentalist hate speech. I know it's out there, because I've heard ISIS/Daesh's Twitter game is on point, but for whatever reason I don't see it)

So take responsibility for the kind of online environment you want to see, just as surely as you should for real life. If someone started putting up swastikas in your town, you'd probably get the police to do something about it before Nazis overran the place. Nobody would expect you to take the law into your own hands, but whether on the street or on Twitter, it's up to people of good faith and honest ideals to work together to deny hate a place to flourish and attract more followers. And this isn't an abstract ideal, either: Heather Heyer was run over while protesting against neo-Nazis, while Jo Cox was shot and stabbed by someone who'd been indoctrinated by xenophobic hate.

So get reporting.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A Quick Visit to Fort Worth

Gosh, so much to write about in the couple of weeks since my last post - do I talk about Stranger Things, or the increasingly surreal Senate race in Alabama? I'm going to opt for my rapid weekend in Fort Worth, since that's a little more fun.

I was there for a work event in Plano, which ended on a Friday, so I had the organizers fly me back on the following Sunday and I booked myself into a Best Western just outside Fort Worth. I spent it tooling around town, visiting museums and eating loads of unhealthy food, and if I didn't exactly get under the skin of Texas, it was at least fun to get to know that area a little bit.

The Best Western was a bit of a shock to the system after my hotel in Tokyo, and my hotel the previous night in Plano, being a smidgen more basic than either, but in the event was fine - the bed was comfortable, the drapes blocked out all light and even though there were a bunch of guests in town for NASCAR, I didn't have any trouble with noise.

Before I flew out a friend of a friend recommended Sundance Square, so that's where I spent my first evening, stuffing myself with barbecue and trying to decide on a place to drink. My first indication that I wasn't in California anymore was the Cigar Lounge, which looked pretty inviting, in a smoky, Eisenhower-Republican sort of way. But just to indicate the times we live in, that cigar place (where, in case it wasn't clear, you could smoke inside) was right next door to an artisanal olive oil shop. Go figure.

The following day, I opted for Fort Worth's Cultural District, a triangle of land right next to the University of North Texas, where there are about five museums, including some galleries for science and technology and for modern and contemporary art. I went first to the Kimbell Museum, which specializes in European art (with some galleries set aside for Asia, Latin America and Africa), and then to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which was just one enormous lawn over.

Both were pretty respectable - the Kimbell had some fine Renaissance and Dutch Masters, as well as nice Impressionist paintings, while the Carter made much of its Frederic Remington and Charles M Russell works, depicting scenes from the Old West like robberies and chases. At the Carter I took the opportunity to get a mini-guided tour by one of the docents, and as I happened to be the only taker I got the full experience, I'd say. Both are free, incidentally, which means you can spend more on food and drink.

Food-wise, I ate pretty damn well. Asked what my favorite food was that weekend, I had to say it was the chocolate pecan pie I ate at the Kimbell's cafe. It filled me up nicely after the soup and half sandwich, and was delightfully chocolatey (something I find important). And for dinner that night I had a pretty large platter of tacos, including the brisket tacos that are so popular in the area that even Dairy Queen sells them now (billed as street tacos).

To help make sense of it all I had Paul Theroux's latest travel book, Deep South, with me to read. In the early chapters, which are mostly in and around Alabama, he attends a gun show and a college football game, in between chatting with locals about their towns. I didn't quite get to either, though I saw a gun show advertised near my hotel, and I did visit Texas Christian University on Saturday afternoon, where I got to see how the locals in Fort Worth prepare for big games against rivals like the University of Texas.

Certainly the fairground atmosphere at TCU was light years away from my undergrad experience, where we didn't have a football team, but even if we'd had one, few people would have cared much. Here there were tents set up for sponsors' guest, like UBS, musical guests and a stand giving away free brisket tacos. Another stand sold signed memorabilia from TCU alumni who'd gone to play in the NFL.

Not everyone at TCU was a student, or parent of a student, but it was clearly the big social event, with a lot of the women all dolled up as if they were going out on the town. I don't get out to Stanford games much, but I have trouble seeing it as more than an afternoon out for people in my town, though in fairness I should probably go investigate (seems Stanford's playing Cal soon, so might check that out...).

I guess what's interesting, if not exactly original, is that sense of being in a different place, even if it is still America. Here in Palo Alto, if you ran around wearing a cowboy hat or cowboy boots, people would think you a little strange, but it's part of the culture there. Beyond superficial stuff like that, there is a sense of different rhythms, and of people enjoying different rituals than they do here - even of enjoying rituals at all, which I find hard to recall from growing up in Palo Alto.

It would have been nice to spend a little more time there, and potentially meet up with a college friend who lives there now, to get a local's sense of what Fort Worth is like. But I can at least say that in these days of political polarization and regional estrangement, it was good to spend some time out of my bubble and seeing some of what we have in common, instead of where we disagree.

Plus, I got to spend the weekend zooming around in this bitchin' ride:

Upgraded from a compact, FYI

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Tokyo 2017: Lost in Franslation

Yeah, I'm back from Japan, and yeah, I went with that title. I couldn't help it - the movie and its soundtrack kind of informed large parts of the time I spent there, since I listened to the music as I rode in on the bus from Narita Airport and since I went to the hotel where the movie was set. There's obviously more to the city than Lost in Translation, but it made for a nice backbone to the trip for me.

View from the hotel in Lost in Translation

First things first: Tokyo's amazing, and you really need to go. It's big and sprawling, but orderly, clean and well-run. There's shopping, museums, sights to see and amazing places to eat. I feel like I could have spent way more time there, even just walking around the city - and if I'd had even more time I'd like to have gone out more into the rest of the country.

This is, of course, despite the fact that Tokyo was being hit by a typhoon and the fact that the government was holding an election. While I noticed the typhoon, because I was out at the Tokyo National Museum that day, the election completely passed me by until I saw mentions of it on social media the next morning.

That kind of leads into one of the points I made in my last post, about language. I was warned ahead of time that English-speakers aren't very common, and while this turned out to be true, it also proved to be unimportant. Almost everything important was signposted in English, especially on the Metro, and the unlimited 2G data on my roaming plan meant that in a pinch I could just use a maps app to get around. This turned out to be helpful for getting around on foot between spots that were closer together than they seemed on the transport maps.

I also determined that I had just about enough Japanese to accomplish the fairly limited range of things I needed to do. Restaurants, museums, stores - all of it was completely navigable, and I found the people working in customer service to be very patient. Heck, there were even some normal folks on the train back from Kamakura who were either able to speak a little English or give easy answers to my basic questions. It's probably different if you go to the real countryside, but for where I spent my time, I got on perfectly well.

The locals seemed to be pretty patient in general - a refrain I kept telling myself was that to them I'm kind of a barbarian, and so barbaric behavior is expected of me. This ranged from taking pictures of everything, to asking confusing things in restaurants, to not knowing the proper greeting when entering a store or restaurant.

In terms of activities, I feel like I struck a good balance between seeing museums and exploring neighborhoods. My first full day there I walked from my hotel in Akasaka to Roppongi, which is nearby, and caught a couple of art museums and a couple of malls. The second day, when the typhoon hit, I was at Ueno Park for the National Museum, and the rest of the time I was hopping around between neighborhoods on the Metro, including checking out the nightlife in Shinjuku and Shibuya (the site of the famous crossing with all the big animated advertising).

I even managed to check out a couple of residential neighborhoods, places that looked quintessentially Asian to me - narrow streets that from the outside looked like alleys but happened to be where all the residential buildings were. When I went to Kamakura on the Tuesday, I determined that this layout was common to both big cities and smaller towns.

Kamakura

The other notable thing about the built environment was much green space there was, and how much you could find if you just turned down a street. In the park next to the Canadian Embassy (which has a rock garden that my guidebook highly recommended), you could see little shrines dotted around among the trees. Others could be found on random corners in Tsukiji, near the fish market, and in Roppongi, just off the main drag as I walked back to my hotel that first day.

I was also lucky enough to have a friend of a friend who I was able to meet in town my first night, when I'd just got off the plane. She introduced me to a couple of friends of hers, who took me first to an Italian restaurant (done Japanese style, though) and then to a little hole-in-the-wall sake joint where the sign outside and the menus inside were all in Japanese only. Certainly you could eat perfectly well if you stick with places that have Western signage, but if you know someone there, have them take you to someplace local; failing that, you can use startups like Vayable (which is actually founded by a former classmate of mine, though I haven't used it myself) to get someone to show you around. In places where you can't read the language, and are in fact as helpless as a child, that's a fun way to visit places you'd miss otherwise.

Spotted at Tsukiji Fish Market

If there was a negative, it's that the bookstores didn't have much in the way of English books. It's kind of a shame, because there were loads of bookstores everywhere I went, but at the same time, most of what I did find in English was stuff I could get back home. On the other hand, it was nice to see how many bookstores there were, all dotted around the city. Contrast that with Singapore or Hong Kong, where most of the bookstores were pretty terrible.

So Tokyo comes highly recommended. There's loads to see, do and eat, and it's easy to get around. Once you figure out certain things, like which side of the escalator is for standing, or how to determine which platform your subway train leaves from, it's pretty easy to navigate. And if you turn even minimally adventurous, for example by walking down the narrow alleys of Tsukiji Fish Market or dropping into the cat cafe in Akihabara, you can have some amazing, unique experiences.

Yep, this happened

Go check it out. Now!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Some Business Before Going to Tokyo

On Thursday I'm heading out to Japan for a week, because I haven't been before and I really wanted to spend a couple of thousand that I don't have on a nice vacation. I've been eyeing it up as a destination for my big solo trip this year, reasoning that now's as good a time as any to do, well, anything. And if the geopolitical situation is anything to go by, this might be the last chance any of us gets.

I'm kidding, of course! But it's hard not to think about that, and all the missiles that might be flying overhead at any given time. I console myself with the fact that my stated goal is to see the world or die tryin', and if anything weird happens, well, I'll have met that goal.

On a more positive note, I've been preparing by watching some of my favorite movies set in Japan, namely Kill Bill Part 1 and Lost in Translation (which I watched last night, as I write this). Not sure how accurate the picture provided by either film is, but in any case it was fun rewatching them close together - coincidentally that's also how I recall watching them the first time, in London, with my mom, and in the exact same theater in Leicester Square. I can't think of two directors less similar than Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola, but those two movies, at least, will always be indelibly linked in my brain.

The movie I haven't watched to get myself ready is, oddly enough, The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. Not because I don't want to, but I've already had toxic levels of exposure to the damn thing and I'll just be disappointed when I don't locate the city's underground multilevel car park racing scene. I've been thinking of downloading the Lost in Translation soundtrack, but as I write these words I should probably do the same for Tokyo Drift.

I also spent some time messing around with Japanese on Mango Languages, but it hasn't stuck and frankly I'm kind of relishing the opportunity to get around with my limited Japanese and inability to understand any answers I'm likely to get. Or if not relishing, then intrigued to see how I get on. Loads of people do it, right? It'll be good practice if I ever lose the ability to read because of brain damage caused by watching too much Tokyo Drift (even if I consider that a contradiction in terms).

In any case, I've got my guidebook and am collecting ideas on what to do for a day trip outside the city. Current front runner is Kamakura, labeled as Tokyo's Kyoto, because I won't be able to get to the real Kyoto. I'm also looking up ideas for museums and restaurants in the city, and whether I can find a good English section at Kinokuniya bookstore - I keep having to remind myself that the one in Singapore had an amazing English section because everyone there speaks English, and the situation is slightly different in Tokyo.

Obviously I'll also have my phone and iPad with me, so I'm hoping to lard the next post with a crapload of pictures. And the best thing is, I've got an Airbnb guest staying while I'm away, so my damn house will make me some cash while I'm away! The money will come in handy when I'm deciding which life-size Gundam model to bring home.

In any case, this scattershot blog post should show how damn excited I am to be going. I feel like my earliest exposure to Japanese culture (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and every video game and anime and manga and Takeshi Kitano film I've consumed since then is leading to this trip. And I'm really hoping to get out to the Park Hyatt Tokyo, where Lost in Translation takes place - then I'll know I'm in Tokyo...

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Catching Up With Blade Runner

With all the hoopla over Blade Runner 2049, I thought it would be a good time to check out the original. I'd been seeing discussions and reviews and thinkpieces for a while, and I think what tipped me over the edge was a discussion on The Verge about which version is best. I'm not going to wade into that argument, but I will say the article made me decide to rent the original, theatrical cut, instead of the Final Cut that Ridley Scott released in 2007 (and which stands as the only time I've seen that movie in the theater).

What's odd is that I actually remembered very little. I could still recall the broad strokes of the plot - the replicants coming to earth to confront their creator, Deckard being sent after them - and some of the smaller moments, like when Deckard retires Zhora, the stripper replicant, or Roy Batty's demise as he tells Deckard of the things he's seen. But I didn't remember the connecting glue, how we got from one plot point to the next.

This might be down to the length of time since I'd last seen the movie (i.e. that Final Cut in 2007), as well as the fact that there are so many versions floating around, with different scenes and editing, that it's hard to keep track of much more than the big stuff. However, I also think it's related to where I was in life when I first watched the movie, vs where I am now.

As a 15 year old (or whatever age I was when I first saw it; might have been earlier, come to think of it), it was hard to see beyond the surface of the plot, and beyond the aesthetics. Deckard drinking alone in his apartment is an image that's stuck with me for decades, for example.

But this time it was easier to see the movie from the perspective of Roy Batty and the other replicants. Batty's line at the end, where he asks Deckard how it feels to live in constant fear and compares it to slavery, landed much more squarely for me this time. It's also easier to appreciate Rutger Hauer's performance as a man struggling for every last moment as the end of his life approaches - where I would have seen the menace and little else, now I can see him as the hero of his own story, in which Deckard is the villain (although the bit where Batty crushes his creator's head is pretty villainous).

It also helps that I'm considering these points both in my own life (not imminently, thank fuck, unless something happens with North Korea) and in my fiction, where I've just written my hacky robot short story. Consciousness and existence, and cogito ergo sum, and all that.

More than anything, though, I'm reminded of what a weird, singular film it is. Amazon helpfully tallies up all of the main crew and cast on the Fire TV, and shows you other movies they've worked on, so you can buy or rent those, too; of Ridley Scott's body of work I count ten movies that I've seen. They're maybe not as highly stylized as some other directors' work, like the Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson, so it's hard to draw a connecting line between Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator (to choose several at random).

In a lot of ways it has more in common, thematically and visually, with Alien Covenant, which also plays with questions about the nature of life and intelligence, while building on weird design and art for its settings. But I don't know if I'd be able to connect them to the same director, and certainly not to Gladiator or A Good Year.

That's probably the Philip K Dick influence, though even that is relatively faint, when I think back to what little I remember of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Still, it's a very weird, brooding type of film, especially if you contrast it with Harrison Ford's other big roles at that time; that, and the surfeit of edits and director's cuts is probably what's made Blade Runner such a rich trove of discussion on What It All Means.

I can't pretend to have the answer, but it was interesting to watch it this time with the knowledge in mind that Deckard himself may be a replicant. Ridley Scott has certainly implied as much, and it sounds like there's some resolution, or discussion, of this point in the new sequel.

Still, the reviews make me cautiously optimistic, as does the fact that it's helmed by Denis Villeneuve, who seems to revel in weirdness and symbolism. He, after all, also directed Arrival, which has a similar dream-like quality to it in which you never know exactly what's happening.

If nothing else, by watching the original Blade Runner, I'm up to speed and can go and enjoy the new one. Here's hoping that one also has people debating it fiercely for the next thirty years.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Top of the Funnel, or Why We Aren't Successful

As I'm fond of noting, I've spent a lot of time over the last few years consuming self-help and productivity books, blogs, podcasts, what-have-you. For the most part I think I've been lucky, because most of it has been transferable to my own life, even if I still have trouble with the concept of not checking my email first thing in the morning.

But I think that we, or at least I, sometimes lose sight of what we're trying to accomplish when we adopt life hacks and come up with really complicated ways to accomplish things. And then we, or at least I, get pretty frustrated at the perceived lack of progress in our chosen areas, which means either giving up the self-help stuff or getting more of it.

Still, the most insightful thing I heard on this topic was on Tim Ferriss's podcast, where some internet entrepreneur (I'm too lazy to go look it up) mentioned the concept of "top of the funnel". Someone out there is probably shaking their head right now at how basic this is, but bear with me, because everyone who's not where they want to be is doing this.

The example in the Ferriss show was getting a new router, to make sure you're downloading the internet at the most optimal speed - everything else you do, from buying Wi-Fi range extenders to upgrading your laptop or whatever, can deliver only incremental gains but replacing your router (ie improving the process at the top of the funnel) means those improvements can deliver even better value.

It's not a 100% match to what I'm thinking of, but at heart it's an illustration that if you want to fix something, you have to get the basics right. If your internet is slow, then the basic thing is to get a new router (I'm not saying to get a new ISP because if you're in America you don't have any choice).

Here are some examples from my own life:
  • So why am I single? Because I don't know enough single women. And because on a Sunday evening I'm writing this blog rather than meeting more single women (though in fairness I was out and about in downtown Palo Alto last night).
  • Why am I not the shredded Adonis that I think chicks would dig? Because I eat quite a lot of crap and sit at desks all the time, either working or writing this blog.
  • Why haven't I sold the proverbial good fantasy novel? Because I don't write enough and I don't submit enough. Simple as that. And when I say write, I also mean edit, revise, fine-tune, etc.
  • Why am I broke? Because I spend too much money on frivolous things and because I work at a job that doesn't pay well.
Now these may apply to me but they're also universal. People are fat, sick and nearly dead in developed societies because they eat crap. They don't have good relationships because they sequester themselves behind their computers or smartphones. And they don't have cash because they don't learn how money works.

The financial basis of the internet, according to another Tim Ferriss guest (I think it was Ramit Sethi this time, but again - too lazy to go check) is to help people get rich, get skinny or have sex. That's besides porn, of course. But nobody would buy any of it (except for porn) if the advice consisted exclusively of "Get a well-paying job and don't spend money stupidly; eat more fruits and vegetables and move around once in a while; and be a nice person who has lots of friends."

I'm aware that this may seem to contradict previous posts I've written where I talk about doing less and not being too tough on yourself. This post is also borne of my own frustration at not accomplishing as much as I think I "should" have. But it doesn't contradict those earlier posts, in truth, and it carries a hopeful message, which I'm going to share with you now.

Being in good shape may seem unattainable, but it's not an arcane thing - all you have to do is eat better and move more. Meeting romantic partners is only possible if you make some effort to go out and meet them, whether by getting shot down in bars or by swiping all night on Tinder. And having money is as simple as getting a job that pays you enough to live off, and not spending so much that you can't support yourself.

You may say there are external factors stopping you in one or more of these cases, and for individual people there may well be. But the hopeful bit is that it's in your control, at least to a certain extent.

One of my favorite parts of Brian Tracy's book, Goals, is when he refers to Barry Sears's Zone Diet, and specifically where he notes that falling off the wagon and eating something not Zone-approved isn't the end of the world. Instead, he says, getting back into the Zone is as easy as eating another Zone meal.

For our purposes today, getting back on track is as simple as taking the actions needed to get back on track. You don't have to build it up into anything more complicated than that. And once you have the top of the funnel sorted out, then you can start making the incremental changes to see even more success.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Uber, London and Capitalism

I don't usually like to talk tech over here on my blog, because that's what I do for work, and I'd rather get paid for these things. On the other hand, my work doesn't directly involve talking about Uber, and I have a few questions that are a little beyond the scope of my job, so I might as well run them here.

To begin, I kind of love the idea of Uber. The thought of using a smartphone app to call a cab and have it pick you up wherever you are is quite neat, and a no-brainer. I take enough taxis whenever I'm in Las Vegas for CES that something like Uber or Lyft makes intuitive sense.

On the other hand, I hate Uber's implementation, so much so that I've only every taken a ride-share three times in my life, and paid for it myself only once (but even that was only with a coupon). If the idea of providing competition to taxis is good for the consumer, Uber's strategy of eliminating taxis and all other competition completely surely isn't. The company is the classic revolutionary, who takes down a corrupt system only to become just as bad as what it replaced.

Note that I'm not talking about the sexual assaults or other crimes committed by Uber drivers, because there's nothing stopping regular cab drivers from doing the same stuff. The difference is that theoretically regular cab drivers are vetted and licensed, rather than simply showing up one day, with or without a car to drive, and taking rides.

Uber's also worse than cabs, in a way, because it's long fought against classifying its drivers as employees. Providing benefits and decent wages would make it non-viable as a business, so it prefers to class them as independent contractors and drive their wages down as much as possible, to attract more users. More than that, research firm CB Insights has referred to Uber as a "Ponzi scheme of ambition", in which it keeps throwing out new ideas to attract investors without first establishing itself as a viable business in its existing activities. You have only to look at stuff like UberEats, its autonomous driving program or the flying cars idea to see that.

So when I see that London's stripped Uber of its license to operate, I actually approve, overall, with the caveat that what I want is for Uber to regain permission to operate there by becoming a more responsible company. Indeed, for all the scorn heaped on London mayor Sadiq Khan over this decision, I'm betting that this is the long-term strategy.

Before I continue, let me note that a lot of my thinking on Uber comes from this article in the Guardian, published last year. Let me also note that my complaints about Uber extend to Lyft and other gig-economy startups, which are creating a vast stratum of shitty jobs that cater to richer people and that will disappear once everyone figures out robots.

(BTW, another reason I decided to tackle the Uber thing here is that I wouldn't be allowed to swear on my work blog)

Former CEO Travis Kalanick - one of my most despised libertarian Silicon Valley douchebro figures - has gone on record as envisaging his ideal Uber ride as a never-ending service where multiple passengers are picked up and dropped off without breaks or interruptions. Ignoring that this is basically just public transportation, it also points to either a need to exploit drivers or to get rid of them altogether and use autonomous vehicles. It also ignores the simple physics of having to recharge or refuel the car from time to time.

If we look at the point about getting rid of drivers completely, I have to ask, why are businesses so keen to get rid of human employees? I understand removing the employees who aren't as productive as their colleagues, though even this can lead to suboptimal outcomes if you're grading on a curve and punishing employees for being just 1% less productive than their peers. But a lot of the discussion in tech and business circles seems to revolve around getting rid of as many employees as possible (or sometimes more).

Uber supporters have pointed to the 30,000 or more drivers who'll be jobless because of London's decision. But frankly, that's a decision that Uber's hoping to make as soon as it gets permission to run autonomous cars without drivers, so it's a little rich to see it defending its drivers' rights now.

We then also come to the question of who will be able to afford Uber or other services when everybody's been laid off, which inevitably leads to universal basic income, an idea that I would welcome if libertarians weren't tossing it out in lieu of actually considering the impact of their decisions.

First of all, we've seen some societies, like in Britain, that have multiple generations of families subsisting on welfare, which doesn't seem to be an ideal outcome. Second, there's the question of how governments will pay for UBI, since it will presumably not be taxed. Third, and as a corollary, governments are eventually going to want to reduce their spending, so what will those who receive UBI do when their checks stop coming?

I'm sure there are more arguments that I'm missing, but those will do to begin with. My point is that we seem to have blinded ourselves to the impact that certain technology is having on society. Rather than limiting the technology, which is as stupid an idea as forging ahead without any consideration of its effects, we need to be having a discussion about what it will mean that some jobs will disappear and rather than just pushing money at some classes of people to make them go away, thinking about how to direct them toward jobs that are useful and dignified.

Being a greeter at Walmart may be safer than coal-mining, but it doesn't seem any less exploitative. We need to be giving workers displaced by technology a third option, a fourth, or as many as it takes to them out of the house and feeling useful.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Haunted

Not sure I had much to write about/think about this week, as I've been running around between meetings and conferences for work since Tuesday. But the weekend is always a bit of an odd time for me, especially now that I live in Palo Alto and especially now that I work from home most of the week.

But this article, which I just read scant minutes ago, is haunting me to a certain extent. Loneliness is a thing I've been wrestling with a lot, since I've been pretty constantly single throughout my adulthood, and in a lot of ways I'm generally quite solitary. I make efforts to go out with friends - this is a big part of why I left London in the first place - but lately, especially since turning 38 earlier this year, the scope of my life alone has been hitting me harder, especially as more and more of my friends settle down, have kids, get divorced.

Hayley Campbell's article underlines an unpleasant dilemma - do you delve into what's bothering you with a mental health professional, or do you try to stave it off by getting out of your head in some fashion? That could be substances, experiences or wearing yourself out... but whichever you choose it feels shallow and not particularly helpful long term, at least as regards staving it off for more than a few minutes at a time.

I probably went looking for it this time, of course - I just got home after dinner with my family and was congratulating myself on feeling quite satisfied (we went up to Foothills Park, had dim sum and then ate ice cream!), but I have a look at social media, find the above article and suddenly I'm contemplating another evening that a therapist once called "deathly". That article underlines what the therapist probably meant, i.e. actually being around to watch the rest of the world go on without you.

The other thing that doesn't help is an email exchange I had recently with a published writer whose work I like, who seemed quite unhappy with the chain of causality that brought him or her to this point. It's fair to say that's been haunting me too, and for a bit longer - the question, which I've wrestled with before, of whether I can have both a satisfying career and a satisfying personal life. Given that I've had neither for so long, choosing only one is proving quite stressful.

It's not just my own oblivion I'm contemplating more frequently now, though - it's becoming more and more real to me that some family members are closer to the end than the beginning, and I can't expect them always to be there.

(By the way, the phrase above, "contemplating my own oblivion", doesn't mean I'm planning anything drastic. It just refers to the fact that the fact itself has come front and center to my thinking. It's gotten so that I can't take naps anymore in the afternoon without imagining my life ticking away by seconds)

What I'm afraid to ask is if anyone else thinks about it this way. It kind of sounds like some do, or at least that they have bad times at the same age that I have. For instance I just heard a podcast where Chris Hardwick talks about how 38 was a difficult year for him; that was somewhat heartening.

The idea of living each day as if it were your last has always bothered me, because I always feel like I wouldn't get anything done. But more podcast listening has me convinced that maybe the way to go about it is not to worry about leaving things complete, but rather to put my all into each of them, and go to bed satisfied that I did a good job.

Still. I wouldn't mind having this worry go away - potentially chased off by a flurry of attractive sexual partners, the attentions of literary agents and entertainment managers, and knowing that I won't starve in my old age. Despite what my published author acquaintance says, I have to believe all three are possible at the same time.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Getting Your Writing Unstuck

Just put the finishing touches on a first/rough draft of a new short story yesterday, and to celebrate I thought I'd talk about my process and how it's changed over the last couple of years.

This wouldn't be such a big thing ordinarily, but up until this year I haven't written much in the way of short stories, as I've been more focused on novels and screenplays. In fact, of the stories I've got on deck that I'm submitting, the newest was, for a long time, something I'd originally written in 2011.

It's hard to say why, other than that novels represented a lot more potential to be busy writing, and because all of the ideas I seemed to be having at the time lent themselves better to longer stories. I did have an idea for a steampunk-type story back in 2013, after reading Lavie Tidhar's Bookman series, and while I finished that, I've never revisited it, as I don't think I achieved what I wanted to (and it broke a rule Lavie Tidhar himself told me, which is that a steampunk story needs to be about more than being steampunk).

What helped this year is a concept that I got from Chris Hardwick's The Nerdist Way, just for a change. Specifically he talks about doing something really hacky when you're stuck, just as a way to get your creative juices flowing. This isn't too different from Tim Ferriss's thing about doing the absolute minimum, but I see this more as a way to attack something like writer's block.

Another thing that helped was seeing Adam Roberts's short story collection, Adam Robots, in which he effectively did his spin on every type of science fiction story out there. I don't know if it was the result of his own attempts to beat writer's block, as I never read it (though frankly I probably ought to, as he's a damn good writer), but it got me thinking in those same terms.

So the story I just finished is, essentially, my robot story, as I've already written my clones story (called I Just Don't Know You Anymore, and which earned me a cool £50 from Spinetinglers.co.uk back in 2013). The beauty of starting from something really hacky is that it can turn into something good, because the creative juices have started flowing. The robot thing might need a lot of work, of course - as I said, I just finished the first draft - but it does feel like something I want to share with beta readers and such, and it does manage to touch on some important themes.

The other thing that got me unstuck on the short story front was writing in other formats. I may have mentioned a screenplay I was working on with a friend over the last couple of years. That project died a death, as the story didn't quite come together and because he sort of gave up writing for lawyering, but I decided (with his blessing, as he came up with the original idea) to repurpose it as a short story. And the happy ending part is that I came out with something I feel quite proud of, which also means it's started going out to markets.

So the upshot is that if you find yourself stuck, try writing something really cheesy and cliched, just as a way to get moving; or raid other ideas that haven't gelled in other formats.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Glad the Football's Back

In my ongoing quest to blog about something other than the car wreck merged with dumpster fire merged with shit show that is national politics in the US, I spent a good five minutes casting around for ideas about what to post today. Do I talk about Dunkirk, which I saw last night? Do I discuss my initial thoughts on the Defenders on Netflix?

Or I can go with the other old standby, which is football, and which is what I'm doing today. I'm about a week late to talk about the return of the Premier League, but given that the start of a season is a bit irrelevant and not always indicative of what's going to happen at the end, I feel like it's still worthwhile to chat about what I've seen so far.

Because I'm a statto, I've started putting together a spreadsheet to draw trends from the previous 25 seasons of the Premier League. I think I mentioned at around the time that Leicester City was driving toward its title that this would be the first time since the start of the EPL that the winner would come from outside the top three. What I didn't mention, but what is undoubtedly true, is that it happened again last season, when Chelsea won the league after placing tenth the previous year.

More interestingly, I saw an article this week that suggested how hard it's been for title-winning managers to keep their jobs. Claudio Ranieri got the sack at Leicester partway through last season, after presiding over a terrible run of form and some uninspired signings, while Jose Mourinho was out of a job midway through the season before after guiding Chelsea to a win.

Obviously people started measuring Antonio Conte's coffin after last week's loss to Burnley, but that talk should die down after today's result, where Chelsea beat Spurs. But if things go south for Chelsea this season, and he gets the sack, then we can point to it as a full-blown trend.

What makes a giant?

Another thought I had while watching the Spurs-Chelsea match at the gym this morning was about Bayern Munich, and why people call them "European giants". They're undoubtedly a great team, and ridiculously dominant in their home league, but I saw someone call them giants recently and had to dispute that.

Bayern occupies a similar role in the Bundesliga that Real Madrid and Barcelona have held in Spain, namely the onrushing juggernaut that just keeps winning championships. They are, in fact, so dominant that no other team has won the Bundesliga since 2012.

But success in Europe has been harder to come by, even when they were being managed by Pep Guardiola before he decamped for Manchester City. Sure, they won in 2013 against Borussia Dortmund, and lost against Chelsea in 2012, but haven't even gotten to the final since then.

I am aware of my standing as a Juventus fan, given that my team is notoriously bad at winning the Champions League, but I think it's worth delving deeper into why I think Bayern's maybe a smidgen overrated. One key thing is probably the players - undoubtedly a talented bunch, but I feel that it's more of a selling club than a buying club, and that the guys who've pitched up there are frequently misfits who didn't really fill their potential elsewhere.

I'm thinking of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, which may be a little harsh, given how many leagues they've won between them. But Ribéry is tainted by his association with France's off-pitch collapse in 2010, and has never really won major trophies away from Munich. Robben, meanwhile, has bounced around a number of clubs and won championships in every league that he played, but I have to admit that I'd completely forgotten he was at Chelsea back at the start of the Abramovich era.

Again, my assessment of misfits may be harsh, because Ribéry and Robben are undoubtedly talented, and there are also a number of great players, like Robert Lewandowski or Thomas Müller, who just go from strength to strength there. But on the other hand, James Rodríguez and Arturo Vidal pitching up in Munich when they've been deemed surplus to requirements at Real Madrid and Juventus proves my point, especially given how well their previous teams have done without them.

Maybe I'm being mean, and maybe it's easy to see everything as being a little skewed when Spanish teams have been so dominant in Europe since 2013. But it's probably fair to say that Bayern aren't really performing at the level they should be, given the talent they have - even if they'll probably romp to the title again this year.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

That Old Northern European Social Democracy Fetish Thing

Over the past few years I've noticed a new sub-genre of travel and history books popping up on UK bookshelves. These books are kind of an explainer of other northern European countries, typically written by British men who have met a partner and decided to elucidate on the quirks of their partner's home country. Their grasp of the local language isn't usually perfect, but they make up for it by their enthusiasm in detailing how much better the Germans/Dutch/Danes/whoever do the big stuff than the Brits.

Though I've been reading these books for quite a while - since at least 2012 - I've only thought to write about them now, having just finished the latest example last night. It's called Why the Dutch Are Different, and was written by Ben Coates, a former political whatever for the UK Conservative Party who met a Dutch girl on holiday and ended up moving to Rotterdam.

It's a fairly interesting book, not least because I'm currently learning Dutch on Duolingo. It also takes a fairly contrarian view about a couple of aspects of life in the Netherlands, in part because of Coates's background as a Tory and his experience as a middle-class, white immigrant, compared with the experience of those who've come from Turkey or Morocco. Which isn't to say that he's particularly right-wing (in the negative connotations of that term), just that it makes for an interesting contrast with the books written by, for example, Guardian journalists.

As I said, the authors of the books tend to revert to a type - white, middle-class, current or former journalists - but so, in a way, do the themes. Comparing and contrasting the different brands of Protestantism is common, as is noting the similarities in British and (for instance) German food. There's also the intense interest in these other countries' welfare states, and the question of whether they're sustainable.

I noticed these books popping up in the final couple of years I lived in London, spurred no doubt by the popularity of Danish and Swedish crime TV (which is touched on in Patrick Kingsley's How to Be Danish). I wouldn't say loads of my group of friends was particularly into northern Europe - one friend admitted to internalizing his grandfather's view of the Germans - but there was definitely something in the air that suggested the Brits were getting more interested in how the Dutch, the Danes or the Germans organized their societies.

The trend seems to have started with Germany, as a number of authors sought to present a rehabilitated view of the country. There was Ben Donald's Springtime for Germany, which I didn't read but that seems to acknowledge that it's a little odd to be persuading people to visit or learn more about Germany. The one I did read was Simon Winder's Germania, which is more of a history than a travel essay or memoir, but does the admirable job of talking about German history before World War II. There were a number of others, each touching on different aspects of German history, but all aimed at reintroducing Germany to the Brits (a phrase that caused a friend of mine to yell at me for how down I always was on British people).

Given some other blog posts I've written about Germany and the dearth of German-speakers in the Anglo-American world, I was intrigued by this trend, and read more than a few examples. My favorite is probably Philip Oltermann's Keeping Up With the Germans, which is actually kind of a reversal of the formula, as it's by a German who moved to the UK as a kid.

Others started appearing around that time, such as Swiss Watching, by Diccon Bewes, and the aforementioned How to Be Danish. I suspect that geopolitics had something to do with this efflorescence, in a number of ways. For one thing, the financial crisis that started in 2007-08 may have made the southern European countries seem more chaotic; alternately the free movement among EU countries was starting to throw up more of these couples, causing more books to be written about what the authors were finding when they ventured north or east, rather than south.

It's also not hard to see the hand of the market, as Provence and Tuscany are pretty played out as destinations for authors to "find themselves". On a personal note, I've always found those types of books - Bella Tuscany, A Year in Provence, Driving over Lemons, etc - to be faintly patronizing, as an Italian. As if the appeal were precisely that the author's new neighbors were "fierce" and "full of life" and there explicitly to teach the author to appreciate the simpler things in life, similar to the "Magical Negro" trope in fantasy fiction.

I also suspect that the chaos at home influenced the popularity of these books about northern Europe. In addition to austerity caused by the financial crash, Britain saw a lot more polarization in its politics, along with a head-long rush to privatize everything. In those circumstances, it makes sense that authors (particularly Guardian journalists) would want to look abroad and ask how other countries were still able to offer a social safety net. More baldly, people dissatisfied with what's happening at home are more likely to look at places that they perceive to be stable and functional.

Predictably, there are excesses caused by this trend, and the inevitable backlash. Every time I'm back in London I marvel at the popularity of Tiger, a sort of Danish version of Woolworth's filled with cutesy but well-designed crap. And Michael Booth, who's written a number of food travelogues and lives in Denmark with a Danish wife, also took it upon himself to deflate this love for all things Nordic in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People. I haven't read it, so can't comment, but the back-cover copy always seems more dyspeptic than affectionate, and so I keep not buying it when I'm in the UK.

Overall, whether you think the Nordics or Germany are overrated, I have to appreciate this interest in that part of Europe. For one thing, it's nice to see a color scheme other than black and red on the German shelves in the history section of bookstores - without wanting to excuse or downplay the Second World War, I feel it's worth understanding German history both before and after the Nazi era.

The other admirable thing about these books is that they are genuinely aimed at providing some context. Britain has long held this opinion that everything from the continent is suspect, an idea that was reinforced by WWII. Now, however, with inequality ramping up people seem genuinely interested in seeing what they can learn from neighboring countries. Paradoxically, as Brexit gains speed, I suspect we'll see more of this comparison (notably, each of the books I've read was written before the Brexit vote last year), even as it becomes more difficult for British people and continentals to mingle.

What I'd like to see is more American authors doing the same. Where the Brits are finally starting to get over calling Germans Fritz or Jerry and not mentioning the war (at least some of them), Americans still don't have a sense of how interesting Germany or the rest of northern Europe can be. In fairness, most Americans don't have any sense of the value of anything beyond their borders - and I'm including a lot of the more "cosmopolitan" Americans here - but with the amount of crap that isn't functioning in this country, I think it'd be nice for us to learn how societies that are actually safe and egalitarian have managed the feat.

I suspect I may be waiting for a long time, but as an optimist I live in eternal hope.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Reconnecting with the Palo Alto Obon Festival

Spent part of today at the local Buddhist temple, for day 2 of their Obon Festival. I remembered it from when I was a kid, when we'd go as a family (given that for about ten years we lived within walking distance of the place), and it struck me as I headed over this afternoon that those previous visits must have informed my appreciation for Japanese food.

I have hazy memories of beef and chicken teriyaki or yakitori, and carnival games, music, dancing, etc. All of those things were on show today, as well as a recital of traditional koto music and a demonstration of judo by the judo club that practices at the temple every week.

What's funny to me is that this is the first time I've gone in the nearly four years I've been back. My longer running routes usually take me past the temple, so it's not like it isn't on my radar, but I've just never gone looking for it. I probably wouldn't have gone this year, either, if I hadn't seen the Mountain View Obon Festival, which took place a couple of weekends ago - that's what made me look up when the one for Palo Alto was taking place.

In terms of the food, it was pretty good, though leaning toward ball-park prices to build a full meal. I had some cold soba noodles (which I haven't had before) and a single strip of teriyaki beef short rib, which was nice but costly for what they gave you, and had to supplement with a teriyaki chicken thigh and leg, which was a bit more like it.

What was notably not ball-park priced was the small bottle of sake that I picked up for a fiver. I'd expected to be bilked outrageously, but I'm willing to make certain sacrifices in my pursuit of the imagined ideal of Japanese living. So imagine my surprise when the bottle they gave me turned out to contain way more than I could safely drink before driving home. I had a single thimble-full - enough to let me know I'd had some sake - and transported the rest home, where it's now safely in my fridge.

As far as the entertainment, beyond what I listed above I also caught one of the three taiko recitals they were hosting today, played by the temple's youth group. Of the three it was probably my favorite, because I really like the sonics of taiko drumming, and because it was impressive to watch the drummers' athleticism and coordination. I remember seeing Michael Palin hanging around with some taiko drummers in Japan for his Full Circle series, which entailed ten-mile runs in the morning and all kinds of privation. The group here in Palo Alto probably doesn't get to those levels, but it does strike me as a good way to get in shape, so I might check that out...

The other notable thing was the community. There were a lot of multi-generational families, with grandparents, parents and grandkids (which makes sense, as it's a festival to honor ancestors), and they seemed heavily Japanese-American, which also makes sense as the festival is specifically Japanese, though China and Korea have their own variants. What struck me was that these were clearly yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese, so people with deeper roots in the area than I've got. The woman who led the koto recital, in fact, called herself yonsei and said her son was gosei, or fifth-generation, which is nice as it shows that the community is still going strong.

In the end it was fun to get out to a local event, sample some delicious food and enjoy some Japanese culture leavened with local influences. One of my favorite things about the US in general, and California in particular, is that at its best the melting pot of cultures and languages leads to new and unique expressions of much older traditions around the world. And it's nice to be able to enjoy an aspect of Japanese culture that's open to non-Japanese and non-Buddhists.

I just have to remember to catch the festival again next year...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Don't Just Write

I've been thinking about feel-good mantras a lot recently, and this was catalyzed a bit by a recent Tim Ferriss podcast where he talked to a bunch of previous guests about when it's time to quit something. A lot of the advice - or even all of it - was good, and very little of it had anything to do with writing fiction, but it got me thinking about the advice that beginning/aspiring writers get a lot.

The main one is, "Just write!" I think it should be obvious from my use of an exclamation point what I think of this advice. I've gotten it myself, many times, and the hell of it is that it's good advice. But it's not enough - necessary but not sufficient.

Thing is, writing's the easy part. The hard part is submitting it places, and getting it into shape to submit to magazines, contests, and literary agents. The one I prefer is Robert Heinlein's "Read a lot, write a lot, and send away what you write." But even that one kind of obscures the amount of work needed to get something into shape.

The platonic ideal is to write a story, send it off, and get started on the very next one. What I'm finding hard these days is balancing creating new stuff with editing the old stuff that I've "finished". I've got a screenplay I spent last year writing, and have spent some time since tinkering with it, getting it back in shape, etc. I have a short novel I wrote in 2015, which I've also been tinkering with since I wrote it. Just got back some beta reader comments on it that indicate how much more work I have to do on it.

But what do I prioritize? Writing new stuff (like this short story idea I've had) or fixing up the old stuff? The other complicating factor is that short stories are easier to submit than novels or screenplays, but less lucrative.

As an aside: yes, I'd like to make money at writing; doesn't mean I don't take it seriously - on the contrary, wanting to make money at it seems like even more reason to learn to do it well.

Obviously I need to do all of it. But to come back to my original thesis here, I can't only do the writing - to be successful at it (however you define success) you have to do the editing, the research and the submitting.

It's a good way to learn to deal with rejection!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Finally Finished Breaking Bad

The title says it all - after first checking it out in 2012, I've seen the resolution of Walter White's quest, and the final fate of his family, his partners and his enemies. I won't be posting a spoiler warning here, because the show ended in 2013, so proceed at your own risk as I deliver myself of my final thoughts.

It's a show that seems to inspire a lot of fervent love in its fans, but I have to admit that it didn't do the same in me. This is probably why I've spent so much time thinking about it, and why I'm writing about it now. The following will take that into account, as a kind of riposte to the likes of Chris Hardwick or my friend Anthony, who have championed it heavily for years.

In a lot of ways, the show really came alive for me in these final 16 episodes. It started to get very good at the end of season 3, when Walt ran over and shot those two drug dealers who were about to kill Jesse, and who worked for his employer, Gus Fring. It got good again toward the end of the fourth season as well, when Walt started maneuvering around Fring, and finally killed him with a cunningly laid trap.

But whereas every previous season walked everything back sooner or later, the fifth season was finally able to move things forward and keep escalating until Walt killed Mike, got Hank and Gomie murdered, and alienated his entire family, right down to Walter Junior. It was clearly the story Vince Gilligan was building toward, and as much as Gilligan and his fellow writers may have enjoyed building up to it, putting everything into place for the showdown and the scene where Walter meets his end, it feels like something that could have worked as a movie, or a series of movies, rather than 50-plus hour-long episodes.

Over the seasons I've complained about Walter himself, because he's a frequently aggravating character. I listened again to Bryan Cranston talking about his approach to playing Walt, and I have to say at the end that maybe we (or I) needed more hand-holding, more explanation of why Walt made the decisions he did. You could argue, rightly, that the first image of this dorky chemistry teacher brandishing a gun in his tighty-whiteys in the desert is a kind of red herring to the sinister figure of Heisenberg that he became by the end.

My problem, however, is that the changes rarely felt earned - he refuses the financial assistance from his former friends at Gray Matter in Season 1 or 2, but we don't get an inkling why until Season 5. He lets Jesse's girlfriend choke on her own vomit, runs over two people and poisons a kid, to say nothing of all the other people he murders. Was he always this much of a sociopath, or did each misdeed lead to the next? Neither explanation feels adequate, as we don't see enough to really decide which is true.

Similar to Iron Fist, over on Netflix, the main character wasn't as much fun to watch as a lot of the folks around him, especially once Hank realized that Walter had been leading him astray for the entire run of the show previously.

For another comparison, though, I have to say that Breaking Bad didn't nail the family stuff as well as the Sopranos did. That was another show I enjoyed but didn't love, though David Chase made his thematic concerns plainer, or at least was better at communicating them. Tony Soprano's relationship with his immediate family was at least as compelling as the crime stuff, if not more so, but I couldn't say the same about Walt, and this is probably because of Walt's lack of definition as a character. David Chase makes very clear that Tony's evil and irredeemable - you see how he gets this way, and you see the toll it takes on him, but there's no effort by the writers to portray Tony as anything else.

I couldn't say the same about Walt, because so much of the story is about glorifying outlaws and leaving behind a legacy. Not that there's anything wrong with telling that story, but I feel that Breaking Bad tried to have it both ways, and in doing so failed to tell either type of story in a satisfactory way.

On the other hand, what fun it was to see Walt come back to Albuquerque and take his revenge on the meth dealers and his other betrayers. Uncle Jack and his Neo-Nazi Friday Night Lights alums (we have both Landry and Herc in his gang) were a great final set of villains. We first met them when Walt orchestrated his prison killing spree, but they survived to eliminate the other meth dealer, Declan, and join forces with Lydia at the international supplier. They became the uncontrolled reagent for Walt, leading to the death of his brother-in-law, and so it was pretty cathartic to see Walt use his technical skills one last time in the service of wiping them out.

So what's the legacy of Breaking Bad for me? Well, I can't put it anywhere near my top five shows ever (which currently stand, in order, as 1.) the Wire, 2.) the West Wing, 3.) Justified, with spots 4 and 5 unassigned). But at the same time, if I'd hated it I wouldn't have stuck with it until the bitter end - and there were good, or even great, moments throughout. The fifth season was the best, as far as I'm concerned, and it's made me want to catch up with the spin-off, Better Call Saul.

And I can't deny that there's a sense of loss at finally seeing how it ended, given that I spent about as much time watching the show as it was on the air. It may not have been the best show, but I'm glad I continued on to see the end of Walter's quest, and another appearance of Cradoc Marine Bank from the X-Files. I'm also glad to see that Jesse got out alive, and that Badger and Skinny Pete survived to continue their self-destruction.

As Jesse would say, "Yeah, bitch."

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Guest Post: What the Pursuit of Happiness Does and Doesn't Mean

Trying something new today - my friend Jeremy posted the below on Facebook, and has allowed me to post it here, since it sums up pretty closely something I wanted to post to mark Independence Day in the US. Enjoy:

American culture has a character problem. The evidence is abundant. Look at our child president. Look at the sad resentments that have made the "troll" into an established American archetype. Look at how large parts of the population moan about the imaginary restraints of "political correctness."
The funny thing is that America's lack of character is bound tightly to the otherwise enlightened idea that each human is inherently valuable.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's great! Radical, even, given how we treat each other.

It's also obvious that we've never come close to putting these supposedly self-evident truths into practice. Some say America has always been a forward-looking concern, that that unequivocal line from the declaration is a beacon on a distant shore, one that we aim for when we take a break from beating civil rights marchers and injecting people with expired execution drugs. We fix on that beacon and ignore the cognitive dissonance the threatens to trouble us whenever a right-winger invokes Martin Luther King, Jr.

But I think that founding idea also works on us at a more basic, psychological level. It gives us a powerful cognitive tool we can use to assert ourselves, to proclaim our worth in the face of the forces of anti-humanism.

Unfortunately, this tool can also be put to dark uses. For some, the American self isn't just sovereign. It's imperial. It opposes civilization and cultivation. It favors the zero-sum contest and precludes honorable restraint and moral obligation.

I'm not saying the American character needs more submissiveness. Nor do I use obligation in the Confucian sense. But I fear so much of our culture insists that we're just fine as we are. The raw materials implied by our self-evident animating idea are enough and in no need of refinement. Even our children's entertainment emphasizes "being yourself" with no mention of "becoming yourself."
But the Declaration of Independence wasn't a declaration against self-improvement. The idea was never that we should be born free and then stay dumb, that our inherent value as people absolved us from all further effort. The "pursuit of happiness" may sound like the end of obligation, but it's an active idea, an invitation to strive.

To be clear, I'm not talking about the meritocracy or the self-improvement of internships, resumes and the self-help section.

The pursuit of happiness is America's jihad. It is a call for us to struggle against base instincts and prejudices. It is the effort to make each us a vessel of civilization and refinement. We must have experiences and study the arts and expand our conceptions. We have to question ourselves and resist the fake comfort of confirmation bias. We must live for each other and build each other up even as we work to improve ourselves.

Honor isn't a restraint, and the declaration didn't kill it. Each of us may have our ideas about what constitutes happiness, but how can anyone be happy when everyone acts as if their happiness matters more than everyone else's?

Resentment is an individual flaw, but it's also writ large in the contemporary American character. It is the current president's primary motivation. It was the force behind the political movement that put him in power. Resentment keeps us from thinking clearly about our real problems. It is against honor and it weakens us.

So, in that spirit, I recommend that Trump's America read George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company in Conversation. He wrote it when he was a teenager. Not all of the rules are worth following. It has a bit too much deference to social betters for my taste. But patriots might like it.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

London vs New York

Just got back this week from a whirlwind-ish tour of Europe, in which I hit London, Turin and Rome. Mainly I was seeing family (as my sisters live in London, my dad's in Turin and my mom spends her summers in Rome), but also working in London and doing touristy stuff in Italy.

Being in London reminded me of something I've been considering lately, namely that London, along with New York, is that rare city that is at once representative of its wider country but also completely unlike the rest of the country.
Financial Times

To explain: both London and New York are the centers of finance, culture and business for their respective countries, which means that foreigners associate the UK and the US, respectively, with them. For a lot of non-Americans, New York is considered the most obvious expression of America, and for non-Brits London holds the same position as the archetypal British city.

But at the same time, both countries are also just diverse enough that nowhere else is like New York or London, to the point that residents of some areas define themselves in opposition to these cities. Examples are how Southerners or West Coast people (or even folks from the Midwest) hold up New York as The Enemy, an example not to be followed at any cost for its poverty and decadence. With London, the cultural resistance comes from the North, where anyone south of the Midlands is regarded as a "southern nancy", and the Home Counties, which define themselves in suburban opposition to the metropolis. For some Americans, New York is pretty un-American, while for some Brits London isn't very British at all.

I find it an interesting idea, because I have trouble thinking of another city that occupies the same place for both foreigners and locals. The closest is Paris, which occupies that same space in foreigners' minds of being so comprehensively French, even if the rest of the country can be quite different. Yet I'd have trouble imagining that folks from other regions in France consider themselves to be more truly French than Parisians.

Even countries like Italy and Spain don't seem to have this dynamic. In both of those cases, you could argue that the capital (Rome and Madrid) has a key rival in another part of the country (Milan and Barcelona), and that both are equally representative of their respective countries' essences. As different as the various regions of Italy are, I don't think I've ever encountered any Italian who would argue that Rome isn't very Italian. By contrast, Spain is so diverse and linguistically fragmented that many in Barcelona, or Catalonia more generally, define themselves and their city as less Spanish.

Understanding of a place also plays into this. India is quite a diverse country, along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines, to the point that it's hard (for me at least) to consider one city, say New Delhi, as more quintessentially Indian than anywhere else. Same with China - I don't know how people in Sichuan or other regions sees Beijing, but given that it's where the seat of power has resided for centuries, I would assume it's considered very Chinese even by locals.

But the overall dynamic of London and New York remains really interesting to me, in part because it's a truism that both are more similar to each other than to other big cities in their regions. This isn't to say that New York is a particularly European city (it really isn't), or that London is at all American, but it is true that they have a lot of similarities that make comparisons between them meaningful. It feels nonsensical to compare Chicago or LA with London, just as it feels weird to compare Rome or Amsterdam with New York (to say nothing of Edinburgh or Birmingham).

But comparing London with New York does make more sense - and from that comes their status of being both representative of, and unique within, their home countries.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Champions League 2017: Spanish Domination

Well, that was obnoxious.

I'd been hoping, after the third goal went in, that Juventus-Real Madrid wouldn't be a rout, but gosh, were my hopes dashed. Juve had a good first half, but then at half-time completely forgot how to play football, stopped stringing together passes and got its impact-sub Juan Cuadrado sent off.

The hell of it is, I couldn't even get worked up about Sergio Ramos's dive by then. Real was already 3-1 up, and cruising toward a comfortable victory, so it's not like it changed the outcome of the game or anything. It was annoying to see, but strangely I got even more annoyed by the BT Sport announcers' moralizing on how "disgusting" Ramos's dive was. That said, it was nice to see English people's disgust being directed at the Spanish team for once, rather than the Italian one (not that I'm bitter).

It was very strange, though, to see Juventus so completely outclassed. You have to remember that they've already won their domestic double (league and cup), and did so against a chasing pack that's upped its game considerably. They also topped their group, undefeated, and saw off Barcelona in the semi-final. And yet, it's not like Italy's burning up European competition - Roma, which had qualified for this season's Champions League in third place, didn't make it out of the playoff round, and Napoli, despite topping its own group, got knocked out in the first playoff round... to Real Madrid.

Someone I was chatting with on Twitter pointed to the gulf in money between Juve and Real, which seems a little odd when you consider that Juventus benefits from some of the deepest pockets in Italy, and comes in tenth in Deloitte's financial league. On the other hand, Madrid is third, which means it rakes in almost twice as much revenue, and I guess that makes the difference?

Though I'm not actually here to rail about the evils of money in football. What I do find interesting is the continued dominance of Spanish teams, with Real making it the fourth year in a row a team from Spain has won the competition, as well as its own third win in four years, and its second win in a row (which is also the first time it's won back-to-back Champions Leagues since 1960).

I've talked often about winning streaks for various countries over the past few years. The main one was England's streak of sending a team to the final almost every year between 2005 and 2012. At the time I argued that England's dominance was interesting, but not really convincing, as the English team won only three of those seven matches, and always on penalties. This may be harsh, but at the time I found it significant that when a game was decided in open play, the non-English team generally won pretty decisively - see, for example, both times Barcelona beat Manchester United, in 2009 and 2011.

What makes this streak of Spanish dominance different is that it's pretty clearly Real Madrid's streak of dominance, with Barcelona being the only other winner during this time. Apart from last year, all finals have been decided within 120 minutes, with margins of 4-1, 3-1 and 4-1. And interestingly, Juve's the only non-Spanish side to have reached the final during this time, though it's then lost (handily) on both occasions.

When I wrote about the buildup to this game last month, I noted that some key players on both sides were getting a bit long in the tooth. I wouldn't say that was on show last night, particularly as Cristiano Ronaldo scored two goals himself; but Real, at least, can take comfort from the fact that even if Ronaldo won't be there forever, the rest of the team stepped up pretty admirably to chip in goals and assists and key passes.

And this is perhaps where my friend's comment on Twitter comes into play. Real Madrid pulled in 620 million Euros in revenue in 2015-16, just a shade behind Barcelona and nearly 300 million Euros ahead of Juve. This makes for a substantial war chest to buy star players, and increasingly these star players seem to be going to Spain and nowhere else (with the exception of China, though there's a different dynamic in play there).

Even the teams we traditionally consider super-rich - Chelsea, Manchester City and Monaco, to name a few - are building reasonably strong teams but not necessarily attracting household names. Manchester United is an exception, having lured over Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the last few seasons, though it's not a coincidence that United is the top club on Deloitte's rankings. It's also worth noting that Schweinsteiger flopped pretty badly and that Ibrahimovic, while influential at United this past season, is also closer to the end of his career than the beginning. The idea that United - or City, or Chelsea, or Juventus - could attract players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar or Lionel Messi seems far-fetched in the extreme.

Again, I'm not complaining about money in football. What's more interesting is figuring out what next year's Champions League final will look like - even if a non-Spanish team gets there, it's hard to see who has the firepower to get past Madrid or Barcelona.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Early thoughts on Luke Cage and Iron Fist

Because I'm a glutton for punishment, and I sometimes disregard my own advice, I've started watching Iron Fist on Netflix. This is after seeing some not-awesome reviews on the AV Club, and a friend on Facebook warning me that it was terrible.

Turns out that, at least four episodes in, Iron Fist isn't terrible, but it's also probably the least compelling of the four Marvel-related series that Netflix has done so far. But there are nine episodes to go, so it could start sucking really bad!

Specifically, the thing that makes it the worst of the shows, after Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, is Iron Fist himself. Each of the other title characters is sympathetic and compelling (more or less) - with Daredevil you get to see Matt Murdock balancing his life as a lawyer and as a vigilante, with Jessica Jones you get a survivor's perspective on sexual abuse, and with Luke Cage you have an old-school blaxploitation hero who can punch through walls.

Your mileage may vary on all of these, but the point is that when the main characters are onscreen you're interested in what they're doing. This doesn't seem to be the case with Iron Fist - or at least it's taking way too long to get to the point.

On the other hand, a lot of the other stuff that's happening around Danny Rand is pretty neat. Colleen Wing, in particular, seems to have a lot more going on, character-wise, and I want to see where they take her character. To a lesser extent, the machinations of the Meachums and their dealings with the Hand are also pretty interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it ties in with Daredevil, or how it leads into the upcoming Defenders series.

As far as Luke Cage, these aren't early thoughts, because I've gone through and watched it, but as I said, it was clearly an update of movies like Shaft and Dolemite. This led to some cheesy acting and dialogue, but on the other hand it was neat to see the machinations around Harlem. And Mike Colter didn't seem as well-used as in Jessica Jones, but he makes for a good lead to build his show around.

I also really liked Cottonmouth, and thought that it was a shame they traded him in for Diamondback. The latter villain had a greater connection to Luke, of course, but Mahershala Ali's performance was pretty great - they did a nice job of showing the two sides of his character, and the way they pulled him in different directions was underlined by his increasing loss of control as the show went on.

Or, to put it another way, he would have fit into the Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale storyline from the Wire.

The Marvel shows have featured a pleasingly high number of Wire alumni, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that the black-themed Luke Cage should draw on that show for thematic inspiration. And if it doesn't quite reach the same heights as the Wire, well, what can? But at least they're getting inspired by the best.

Now that Iron Fist is out, the next time we see these characters is going to be in the Defenders, because apparently everything has to now tie into a shared universe and bring characters together as a team. That seems kind of a shame, because it feels like we're getting a pretty big gap to revisit Daredevil and Jessica Jones in particular, and you have to question whether such a long hiatus will do either show much good. It's possible (perhaps even likely) that Netflix is treating them all as substantially the same show, for production purposes, but as I say, I'd rather see what the DD and JJ showrunners have in store for us next, rather than taking a long detour to effectively replay the Avengers movies.

The one exception is the upcoming Punisher series - Jon Bernthal was pretty great in the role for Daredevil, so I'm curious to see where his story goes. I even just started reading Garth Ennis's old Marvel Max book featuring the Punisher, so I'll be looking out for any influences from that.