Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Esquire (UK)


My favourite magazine, which I have read more or less regularly for the past five years, is the UK version of Esquire. I know it is originally a US magazine, but it is the British version I saw first on the newsstand as I was waiting for a flight and got sucked in by. Also I tend to like British magazines better – see NME, Q, FourFourTwo, the British version of GQ, and The Cricketer.

There are basically three elements that keep me reading the magazine. One is their ‘Culture’ section. I have gotten quite a few good recommendations for books, albums, films, and TV shows from this section. Part of its appeal I think is that Esquire assumes that you have a full-time job, and therefore cannot go around listening to every obscure indie band, or watching every limited release arthouse film. They basically give a few good picks, tell you what you need to know about them, and then move on.

A second element I like is the interviews. Yes, some can be a little fawning over their subjects, but the best ones get their subjects to open up about their careers, their everyday lives, their habits, and their flaws. My all-time favourite Esquire interview was in the first issue I bought (see picture above) with the comedian Steve Coogan, whose past decade at the time seemed like it had been a bit haphazard, with drinking and affairs. It suggested to me that one’s thirties might not be as straightforward and all-together as I imagined growing up.

And the third element I like is the design. Both the logo and the generous use of white look very classy to me, and is probably part of why I like Esquire more than the flashier GQ (also it is cheaper and lighter). The typeface also gives the magazine a nice kind of retro, England in the ‘60s or ‘70s feel. I do miss though the changing strip of colour they used to have down the left hand side of the cover though.

And the sartorial focus? It has probably got me thinking slightly more about my clothes, but I am never really going to be one of those men spending thousands of dollars on a blazer, or planning out my bespoke suit. Or buy an expensive watch. Never mind – even with a few style tips I will take it over FHM. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Wooden Finger Five - September 2014


No. 5 The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) – U2

When iTunes and U2 conspired this past week for the Irish band’s new album to be automatically included in the library of every iTunes user, many people complained about the album being foisted upon them against their wills, and the difficulties of deleting it.  As for me, I actually wanted to listen to it, and initially couldn’t find the thing. A friend helpfully pointed out that it was in the ‘not in your library’ part of my ‘purchased’ folder. Following that advice I downloaded it, dragged it over to the iPod icon, and then pressed play only to find … none of the files worked on my iPod. I tried, Bono, I really tried.


No. 4 Knock Knock Knock – Spoon

I recently read Grantland’s ‘The American Band Championship Belt’ article, in which Spoon was named the fourth best American band of the 2004-07 period. That was when I realised I really hadn’t heard that much of Spoon. I then went back and listened to their entire catalogue over a day or so, and I was really impressed. In particular I like 2007’s excellent release ‘Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’, which is a good ‘old time’ rock album. (Actually I think one of their weakest albums might be the one that gained them the most notice, and might be why I never really got into them – 2002’s ‘Kill The Moonlight’.) Anyway, their 2014 album ‘They Want My Soul’ is also very good, with the slightly noxious, can’t-be-arsed track ‘Knock Knock Knock’ being my favourite.

No. 3 Brill Bruisers – The New Pornographers
No. 2 Champions of Red Wine – The New Pornographers

I only discovered the New Pornographers’ classic ‘Letter From An Occupant’ a couple of years ago, which brought me up to the band’s work as of … oh, the year 2000. Which means I am still have fourteen years on their work to catch up on. But I have listened to their latest release ‘Brill Bruisers’ and there is not really a dud song on it. The real heavy-hitters are the first two tracks though, with the title track opening things off with a massive sound that seemingly uses every instrument in the book. Better still though is the more muted, Neko Case-led ‘Champions of Red Wine’, which would indeed be perfect music to drink red wine on your patio to.


No. 1 Cthulu – EMA

Listening to Spoon was great, but they have been in my background for years; my real discovery over the past month was the music of the ambiguously pronounced EMA. I really have trouble describing why her music is so good, in trying to do so to someone I came up with the rather lame ‘[long pause], um, jagged pop …?’ Her second album (I thought it was her first, which means I now have another whole EMA album to go listen to), ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’, has at least five semi-classics on it, in particular ‘Milkman’, ‘Anteroom’, and closer ‘Red Star’. The new album, ‘The Future’s Void’, might only have two, one which is the punkish ‘So Blonde’, but the other is the epic ‘Cthulu’, which is some good old gothic, industrial shit. Here is what you get when you search in Google Images for Cthulhu – I don’t know if that’s exactly what EMA meant to evoke, but it seems pretty apt to me.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Quickie Book Review: ‘Capital In The Twenty-First Century’


Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital In The Twenty-First Century’ is long, too long really, as I reckon he could have made his argument in half to two-thirds of the pages. But is it worth reading? Probably more so if you are an economist, which is not to sound exclusionary, but just to note that you are more likely to be interested in the detail of Piketty’s ideas if they pertain to your chosen vocation. For others by all means give it a go, especially if you are interested in the politics of inequality, but don’t feel bad about skipping large chunks or reading one of the several one-page summaries instead.

What did I think of Piketty’s ‘thesis’ in the end? I think he argued it about as well as one could argue it. Essentially, Piketty shows that, since the rate of return on capital has almost always exceeded the rate of economic growth, then those wealthy individuals who own the capital get further and further ahead. The exception was the period from the 1930s to the 1970s, in part because a lot of wealth was destroyed by the two world wars.

To counter this tendency Piketty proposes a progressive global tax on wealth. His arguments do flow reasonably well into this prescription, although to make the leap you do have to hold that rising inequality is something to be combatted. And this may just be a function of how quickly I read the last few chapters, but his wealth tax suggestion then seemed to flow too easily into his 80 per cent top marginal tax rate suggestion, which had a bit too much of the Beatles’ ‘one for you, nineteen for me’ for me. Still, perhaps if you look at the maths more closely, it makes more sense as a policy prescription.

In summary then, the historical and data analyses look sound, though they are a bit boring to trudge through, while the policy recommendations are intriguing but not quite as convincing. Of course if Piketty’s predictions about the future turn out to be on the mark, then you may feel obliged to read this a decade or two down the track anyway.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Beatles and Comic Books: 'The Fifth Beatle'


Last year as a present my wife gave me a book entitled ‘Beatles and Comic Books’, quite rightly reasoning that it combined two of my favourite things. While the book only contained snippets of the appearances of the Fab Four in four colour print I doubt that any of those appearances were as good as ‘The Fifth Beatle’. Writer Vivek J. Tiwary has a sincere affection for the Beatles’ late manager Brian Epstein, which combined with Andrew Robinson’s gorgeous art, makes this a wonderful tribute to and study of the ‘English music entrepreneur’. As Tiwary himself admits in the afterword, it does take some artistic licence with events (although supposedly some of the weirder incidents are absolutely true); the aim was though to capture the essence of ‘Eppy’.

If it does, then what it shows is a sad and loving, ambitious and fiercely loyal, figure. Even to Beatleophiles, Epstein feels like he has not been as clearly depicted in histories of the group as, say, producer George Martin. Of course this is in part due to his unfortunate death only a few years after his boys did indeed become ‘bigger than Elvis’. And music snobs like me will point out that, unlike Martin, he essentially contributed nothing to the music, and that his main job was to make sure the Beatles got safely in their cars from hotel to arena. But as Tivary points out, he was an important figure in terms of music management, both building and maintaining the greatest pop music phenomenon the world has seen. That takes some talent in itself, helped by passion and belief that one is creating something positive. And Epstein’s life turns out to be fascinating in itself; his homosexuality is well-known, the conflict he faced between running his family’s record store or giving it up for the four mop tops may be less so.

Tiwary and Robinson also manage to make the book feel ‘Beatles-ish’, in a similar way that the Rock Band game and the ‘Love’ Cirque du Soleil show (both of which I loved) were. By this I mean something cheeky, exuberant, English, and a little bit psychedelic, although sort of like a cleaner, sharper, twenty-first century version of 1960s psychedelica. ‘The Fifth Beatle’ also touches on some darker subject matter than a game or circus ever will, though in a strange way, because of Epstein’s partly repressive character, it is also kind of off-panel or in the background; for example John Lennon’s absence in the final scenes.

After finishing the book I read that a film adaptation is now in development. Hopefully it works; I am imagining something like Tom Hanks’ ‘That Thing You Do’ crossed with the Coen Brothers’ ‘Inside Llewellyn Davis’. In the meantime if you are a fan of the Fab Four I think the chances are pretty good you will like this book.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Shit Gamer’s Review – ‘The Walking Dead: Season Two’, and ‘The Wolf Among Us’

As someone who is more an expert TV watcher than gamer I was engrossed by Telltale Games’ first instalment of ‘The Walking Dead’ series. Basically, one’s chances of not finishing a Telltale Game are equivalent to not finishing watching a DVD box set – sit there for about ten hours and you will do it. (Though you do feel your gaming abilities may be a tad shit when you die just from not pressing ‘A’ quickly enough.)

However finger dexterity is not the point of Telltale Games; it is being in the centre of the tension, as each action you make and decision you take affects the other characters around you. These are the more colourful, more realised, versions of the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, with the added bonus that you get the stats on what adventures other players chose as well.


In the first season of ‘The Walking Dead’ you were Lee Everett, continuously trying to protect the young girl Clementine from hordes of ravenous zombies. In the second season, you take the role of Clementine, a few years older and more hardened, as she joins a new group of survivors. Essentially the gameplay is the same as the first set of episodes - shooting zombies in the head, pushing zombies off you, keeping an eye out for assholes – these are the things that you will have to do again to progress.

One main difference though is that the second season is less reliant on puzzles, and more reliant on simply making dialogue choices than the first season. I am a little conflicted on this development. On one hand, pushing buttons and pulling switches in the first season held up the story when I am impatient to know what comes next at the best of times, but on the other it has made progressing through the game even simpler.

But I think it is not the lack of puzzles that has meant the second season is a small step below the first in quality. I think it is more that I seem to have less of an influence on what is going on around me. For example in the first season the cast of characters in each episode was somewhat different depending on who you had chosen to save. Also, there seem to be less shocks – in the first season, there were incidents I will never forget like the scene outside the van in episode three, and the first entry into Crawford – but I don’t think there was a ‘holy crap!’ moment in season two.


‘The Walking Dead’ may be a victim of its own high standards here, but I have actually preferred playing another recent Telltale adaptation of a comic book series, ‘The Wolf Among Us’, based on DC’s ‘Fables’ series. The main premise of ‘Fables’ is that the characters of fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and other public domain stories have been driven out of their homelands and have built an exile community in modern-day New York.

In ‘The Wolf Among Us’ you play as Bigby Wolf, aka The Big Bad Wolf, who is now in human form and the Sheriff of Fabletown. The game has amped up the detective/noir aspects of the comic book series, both in atmosphere and in plot, with Bigby trying to solve a series of murders. The villains, all taken from fairy tales and such, are excellent, particularly the terrifying Bloody Mary, who can emerge suddenly from mirrors to kick your ass.


Your chances of dying in ‘The Wolf Among Us’ are essentially non-existent; even if you fail to press ‘W’ or ‘A’ a few times you can generally recover to win the fight. The main ‘challenge’ here, in terms of gameplay, is choosing the order in which to do things; scenes can play out somewhat differently depending on the choices you make, more akin to the first season of ‘Walking Dead’.

So as far as being games, neither ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘The Wolf Among Us’ are all that difficult. Yet I have enjoyed ‘The Walking Dead’ games more than all but a few issues of that series, and probably more than all the TV episodes, while I loved ‘The Wolf Among Us’ more than all but the best couple of ‘Fables’ storylines. Perhaps these titles should be thought less of as games and more of as a new form of graphic storytelling, which takes you out of the ‘flat’, passive, two-dimensional world of traditional comics, and gives you the chance to determine – at least to some extent – the actions of the characters yourselves (which, to be frank, is what many comic book fans want to do anyway). If that is the case then I can’t say I mind, particularly since the games are no more expensive than a trade paperback anyway. 
 
 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Finger Points Outwards No. 89 – Some Dead Set Wrong Predictions for Richmond Supporters to Be Semi-Smug About, At Least Until Tomorrow

Last Saturday night, wildly against the odds, Richmond won its ninth straight game in a row to qualify for the 2014 AFL finals, sending its supporter base – including myself – into hysterics. Six times in the past two decades the Tigers had finished ninth, just missing out on finals action, so grabbing eighth spot was particularly sweet.

Of course, you can’t really be too smug if all you have done is finished eighth; it just means that seven teams have finished above you rather than eight teams. And as I have argued before, ‘sneaking’ into the finals doesn’t really have much benefit, at least in terms of future performance.

But part of following sport is the psychic benefits, and the psychic benefits for Tigers’ supporters of coming from essentially nowhere to grab a finals spot are huge. Finishing ninth six times in a row in the past twenty years was an improbable event, and Richmond was on the wrong side of it (even if their history of finishing ninth or just missing the finals is often overstated). Winning nine games in a row to make the finals was also an improbable event, and Richmond was on the right side of this one, like some sort of karmic balance, Essentially Richmond has now averaged out its averageness.  

One thing that I found remarkable about Richmond’s winning streak though was the number of media commentators that rose up to quash any chance of the Tigers making the finals, as if Tigers’ supporters were all lining up en masse for Grand Final tickets. Everyone knew it was unlikely, but to say they were NO CHANCE?! As with many fields, in sports media you can just make predictions willy-nilly or take a cheap shot, and usually no-one will hold you to account for it. The articles below were wrong, so very wrong. Or as Dr Cox from ‘Scrubs’ would say:




From least egregious to most egregious, here are some links for Tigers’ supporters to feel a little bit smug over, at least until tomorrow.
Choice phrases: “So ease off the talk of being a game out of the eight. Having only beaten one team from that end of the ladder this year, Richmond are not going to bring home the required spoils from Adelaide and Sydney. As ever at Tigerland, it’s a case of maybe next year.”
Mitigating factor: Geoff Lemon is one of the better AFL (and Australian sports) writers out there and has a great Twitter account, so while I do think the certainty of this prediction is now amusing I’m not going to rag on this too much.
Choice phrases: “Their form in the past six weeks, rather than frank the form of last year, adds to the perception that they struggle with expectation.”
Mitigating factor: Garry Lyon did believe that the Tigers could win against Sydney last week. And he could argue that his main point still stands: Richmond should be aiming for a finals win to call this season a success.
Choice phrases: "When Richmond loses to Sydney, they won’t surprise anyone…"
Mitigating factor: The author has admitted he got this one wrong.
Choice phrases: "Sydney at ANZ Stadium. The Tigers have lost their last seven in Sydney dating back to 2004, and will meet a Swans’ team possibly looking to secure top spot, and a home final, and be in peak form heading into September. Good luck with that Richmond.
But, again, let’s just say, for the sake of it that they beat the Swans and finish with 12 wins and 10 losses. Will that be enough?
I don’t think it will. It will more than likely lead to another ninth-placed finish and will end a season that promised so much but in the end delivered what Richmond teams have delivered so often in the past, disappointment."
Mitigating factor: Some troll (comment made August 30 @ 11.01 pm) has already gone back and held the writer to account for this. Also the Tigers still had the Bombers, Crows, and Swans to beat at that point. But the ‘Good luck with that Richmond’ quote is now pretty satisfying.
Choice phrase: "... the Tigers are no hope against the Swans and the 2014 season was a complete waste."
Mitigating factor: None whatsoever. The Tigers were certainly not favourites against the Swans, but they had just won eight straight games! ‘No hope’ was a tad over the top to say the least.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Wooden Finger AFL All-Australian Team 2014

The squad for the 2014 AFL All-Australian Team was named this week, which has prompted me to undertake my annual exercise of picking who I think will make the final team. I tend to move between picking it before the squad is announced, meaning that I end up picking some players that do not even make the squad of 40, and picking it after the squad is announced. This year though all the players I was thinking of including made the squad.

I have not watched as much AFL this year as recent years, as I almost essentially swore off football in the middle of the season when Richmond had fallen back towards the bottom of the ladder (though I still watched their matches). Hence I am relying a bit more this year on those damn lying statistics, and as always the ‘general consensus’.

Given the ‘general consensus’, while I would not go so far to say that these players are locks I would be very surprised if any of them did not make the final cut, even if not necessarily in the positions I have assigned to them here.


B:
 
 
 
HB:
Nick Malceski
 
 
C:
Tom Rockliff
Joel Selwood
Nat Fyfe
HF:
Robbie Gray
Lance Franklin
Luke Breust
F:
 
 
 
R:
 
Josh Kennedy
Gary Ablett
I:
Scott Pendlebury
 
 
 
 
 
 

So which players do I think fill out the remaining positions?

Defenders: Cale Hooker has been considered an All-Australian backman from early in the season. Harry Taylor is possibly now the league’s premier defender. Alex Rance just pips Eric Mackenzie through the momentum of his final round season-saving performance, and because I am a Tigers supporter. Daniel Talia looks a slight step below those guys to me. Nick Smith is essentially the only ‘back pocket’ in the squad. Brodie Smith has been racking up the numbers at half-back, particularly the rebounds from the back 50 metres.

Forwards:  How do you split Jarryd Roughead, Tom Hawkins, and Jay Schulz, who all kicked 62 goals?  Roughead is versatile (see below) and gets a bit more of the ball, so I think he is in. Hawkins has more SuperCoach points per game than Schulz (damn lying statistics), so that suggests to me he may have been more effective. Brent Harvey gets the other ‘small forward’ spot, as a sentimental favourite at age 36, and because at least one Roo should probably be in there. I am shifting Luke Breust to the forward pocket to put Harvey in a midfielder/forward position.

Ruck: The only thing that Aaron Sandilands did better this year than Sam Jacobs is get a few more hitouts per game, so Jacobs gets this spot. Roughead is back-up ruckman.

Interchange: Matt Priddis and Jordan Lewis get the ‘Brett Ratten Circa 2000 It’s About Time’ spots for this year. They are also the midfielders that are next in line in the Brownlow Medal betting. The other player who is next in line in the betting, Dyson Heppell, gets the other spot.


B:
Nick Smith
Cale Hooker
Alex Rance
HB:
Nick Malceski
Harry Taylor
Brodie Smith
C:
Tom Rockliff
Joel Selwood
Nat Fyfe
HF:
Robbie Gray
Lance Franklin
Brent Harvey
F:
Luke Breust
Jarryd Roughead
Tom Hawkins
R:
Sam Jacobs
Josh Kennedy
Gary Ablett
I:
Scott Pendlebury
Matt Priddis
Jordan Lewis
 
Dyson Heppell
 
 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 23 2014

RISING UP

Greater Western Sydney easily takes home the title of the most improved AFL team in 2014, gaining almost eight goals worth of ranking points this season, equal to the current distance between Sydney and Carlton, or Geelong and St. Kilda. The Giants are essentially equal fourteenth after their win against the Bulldogs, coming from last place – and a long, long way behind every other team except Melbourne – at the start of the season.

Mention here should also be made of the West Coast Eagles, who have finished off the season well, and currently sit in sixth, which is their highest ranking position for the year. No finals this year for the Eagles, but good signs going into next year. Another team that missed September action – the Adelaide Crows – also had a good finish to the season. Non-Victorian teams now occupy five of the top six spots in the rankings, even though only three of them made the finals in the end.

FALLING DOWN

No team really crashed this week, so hey, let us not focus on the negatives, and get straight into the season summary.


ALSO OF NOTE

Below is the usual end of home and away season Power Rankings summary for 2014. Squint at (or enlarge) the graph and you can see every team’s progress this year. Meanwhile the table shows each team’s highest, lowest, average, median ranking position and standard deviation in their ranking positions over the year.



Top club – Sydney ended the H&A season as the minor premier and #1-ranked team, a position that it has held since Round 17. Hawthorn though spent almost all of the other rounds in the top spot, only broken by Fremantle in Round 2.

Bottom clubSt. Kilda ended the H&A season with the ‘wooden spoon’ and as the lowest ranked team, a position that it has held since Round 13. Despite its significant improvement GWS was the next worst, spending nine weeks at the bottom of the heap.

Most average club – This goes to Richmond, with an average, median and finishing position of ninth in 2014. I would say insert your go-to Richmond ninth ‘joke’ here, but after the Tigers qualified for the finals last night those ‘jokes’ mean nothing now! Nothing!

Most variable club – Actually it was Sydney, with a standard deviation of almost three positions. The Swans spent the first ten rounds in ranking spots between fifth and eighth, but they caught fire towards the middle of the season, and were second or higher from Round 11 onwards. Collingwood, which had a very good first half of the season, but fell hard towards the end (partly because its ranks were depleted), also had a highly variable season.