Saturday, February 6, 2016

Super Bowl L From South-East Melbourne

One good thing about the Super Bowl this week is that it starts at 10.30am AEST, and I have the day off work. There was a tired few months’ worth of Monday mornings when I was getting up at 5 or 6am to watch the free-to-air coverage of the NFL before I went to work. I’d do some exercises while I was watching – it sometimes took 10 to 15 minutes to get the body to move, but then my routine for the first half would be something like:

·         5 minutes of jogging on the living room rug (or ‘shuffling’, as my wife calls it);
·         50 reps on my weight – I only have one – 25 on the right, and 25 on the left;
·         100 star-jumps;
·         air-cycling, about 50-60 cycles of the legs;
·         30 stomach crunches; and then
·         jog/shuffle until the quarter ends.
And then at the half-time break I’d shower, dress, and get my coffee. My memories of the NFL season are therefore full of dawns and tired, seldom-used muscles. And the 49ers being unable to score – we got a lot of coverage of the 49ers this year in Australia with Jarryd Hayne sitting on their bench. I’m a 49ers fan so I like seeing my team, but I would have preferred to watch them more two or three years ago.
I would prefer Denver to win, but I have no problem in Carolina doing so. It’s mainly because I want Denver quarterback Peyton Manning to win another Super Bowl before he retires and gather more support to his side of the Manning v Tom Brady debate. Sure it’s his teammates that are carrying him over the line, but it’s hard to get traction against the Brady boosters while he has three more championships. I like Manning more than I like Brady and the Patriots. Carolina quarterback Cameron Newton will have other seasons left, and therefore other opportunities to win the Super Bowl.
But that’s a bit unfair to Cam. There is a lot to like about Newton as well – he’s one of the most fun quarterbacks to watch, as shown by his flip touchdown earlier in the season.
And it’s pretty hard to get into the Super Bowl, so you never know, this may be Newton’s only chance. So if the Panthers roll over the Broncos like they have rolled over many teams this season that is OK with me as well.

Friday, February 5, 2016

That Family Is Not Like Us: The Vision

Marvel Comics have been advertising recently that they are ‘all-new’ and ‘all-different’; one of the series that actually delivers on this promise is ‘The Vision’. In my view, the first four issues of this series are some of the best Vision stories ever.[1] For this series, writer Tom King had the somewhat unusual idea of having the Vision try and settle down in the suburbs with a family of Vision-like synthezoids – wife Virginia, and children Vin and Viv. The Visions want to fit in, but not all of their neighbours are welcoming. And when the family comes under attack, things start to become even more complicated.
The Vision almost takes a backseat here to his heretofore unfamiliar family. Long-time Avengers readers will know that the Vision has tried to settle down for a quiet life in the suburbs with his family before, back when he was married to fellow Avenger the Scarlet Witch. So I did wonder a bit why they didn’t just use Wanda here, but created the new character of Virginia instead. The Scarlet Witch has shown a dark side in the past as well, so it seemed like one could just as well use her. But on further reflection, a difference is that, while we have seen an ‘evil’ Scarlet Witch before, readers probably feel like they know her limits by now. Virginia on the other hand is an unknown to us – we’re not sure yet what lengths she will go to.

Similarly for Vin and Viv. One of these characters suffers badly early on in the series, and it’s heartbreaking to watch. After that one isn’t sure quite how they will react to that incident, plus the difficulties they face fitting into their new school. They seem to vacillate between wanting to fit in, and being ticking time-bombs that will show those silly, narrow-minded humans what is what. In a country plagued by school shootings and violence, there is a not wholly unreasonable basis to their neighbours’ fears.

Distrust of a family that is different has been done before, but King keeps throwing curveballs into the plot that significantly change the story’s course. Four issues in then I still don’t have a strong view how the Visions’ attempts to fit in will end – in failure or success? This set-up though has made the Vision more interesting than he has been for years. Marvel has surprised me with this one.

Read here for Comic Book Resources’ interview with writer Tom King.

[1] The others: Roy Thomas’ ‘Behold The Vision’ and ‘Even An Android Can Cry’, which were the Vision’s first two appearances, and Bob Harras’ one-issue examination of the Vision in ‘Avengers’ #348.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 117

BASKETBALL: Someone campaigned for San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard to be voted into the NBA All-Star Game, which he was, by creating these nifty ‘old school’ Kawhi basketball cards.

VIDEO GAMES: Fallout 4 takes a while to install on to your console. But at least while you are waiting you can watch these entertaining 1950s-style animations.

FILM: Empire gives the ‘complete history’ of the new Star Wars movie.

ECONOMICS: Does Tinder increase assortative mating?

FOOTBALL: National Football League coaches are committing crimes against high school maths with their calls.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Wooden Finger Five – January 2016

5.Midnight’s Mirror – Mystery Jets

This was one of those tunes where ten seconds in I felt like I had heard it before. More than that, I felt like it was a forgotten favourite. And then the chorus came in, and I’m a sucker for a high voice done right. I didn’t even know the Mystery Jets had a high voice in them. What I’m saying in this song was a comfy, pleasant surprise.

4.Leave Me Alone: album – Hinds

Back when the Spanish quartet Hinds was the duo Deers I loved ‘Bamboo’. God I loved ‘Bamboo’! Nothing else on their first album quite matches up to that, but it’s still pretty good. ‘Garden’ and ‘Castigadas En El Granero’ are probably the best of the rest for me at this stage. And now I can own ‘Bamboo’ on CD if I so wish.

3.Adore – Savages

‘Is it human to adore life?’ is not exactly the sentiment you expect to hear from a dark, goth-like band that calls itself Savages and plays moody, distorted guitar. In the chorus to this track singer Jehnny Beth sort of recalls the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. It’s notable as a variation on Savages’ usual sound, and from what we were led to expect for the upcoming album based on the two tracks (‘The Answer’ and ‘T.I.W.Y.G’) that preceded it.

2.Crying In Public – Chairlift

From the lyrics in the first verse I wasn’t sure if this song’s narrator was someone who never cries (‘take all my defenses’), or was perhaps trying to make their partner cry (‘what kind of monster have I been today?’). Reading the lyrics again, I think both of those things could be intended. Then the second verse seemed to veer off on unrelated topics (‘from the birds at my feet / to the breakdancing boys / and their boomboxes’ beat, beat, beat’). It’s quite nice though, and the chorus will stay with you. We all know someone who’s been there, if not our selves.

1.Blackstar: album – David Bowie

I don’t have too much to say directly about David Bowie’s latest, and – as it sadly turns out – final album, as whatever meaning it has, not much of it has been revealed to me at this point. (It seems I’m not alone here – see this recent New Yorker article about Bowie’s ‘beautiful meaningless’). I do want to share these thoughts about it though.

With the release of ‘Blackstar’ and ‘The Next Day’ a couple of years ago, it seemed as if Bowie had put semi-retirement behind him, and was embarking on the next phase of his career. A bit of what I read about the album prior to listening to it talked about the new directions that it suggested. As the big new release I was listening to it for the third time, and was about halfway through the first, title track when the news popped up on the website I was reading: David Bowie had died. How weird! There is a good chance I’ll never have a moment like that again …

Who knew, hey? Bowie’s new album didn’t exactly sound like his ‘last will and testament’. I suppose now I can see some signs, in that the album has only seven tracks and four of those had already been released, potentially indicating that the album was shorter than it would have been if Bowie had been in full health. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t … maybe Bowie intended it to be only that long …

Now I think about it though, it seems somewhat appropriate that Bowie’s final album felt like it was looking forward to the next stage. His music often felt like and referred to what was coming next. Also, life doesn’t always end neatly so much as it is interrupted, like the people walking through the market square in ‘Five Years’ catching the news that the end has come.

David Bowie will be most remembered by me for his incredible run of albums in the 1970s: The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Station to Station, Low, ‘Heroes’, Lodger, and Scary Monsters. Those were ten great albums, and contained many great songs. But his past two albums were pretty good as well. It’s a shame that we also won’t have more albums like them.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Watching the EPL Live ... Or More Often Not

I enjoyed the rare luxury of watching a chunk of the last round of English Premier League matches before the New Year, as I had time off work and temporary access to the Fox Sports channel. My viewing started with the Manchester United v Chelsea match early on the Tuesday morning [Australian Eastern Standard Time], continued on for three more matches on replay, and then finished off with the Leicester v Manchester City and Sunderland v Liverpool matches. (Alas, due to a few low scoring matches, I saw only one goal ‘live’.)
My EPL ‘binge’ raised what I thought was an interesting point about watching EPL matches – you can see relatively few matches in or close to their entirety as they happen. Generally over half of an EPL round is played at the same time on a Saturday afternoon [UK time]. I purposefully did not check the scores of the matches that were being replayed before I watched them, but the fact remains that they had already happened; the result was not in doubt as I was watching.
Personally I find it kind of cool and somewhat quaint that many of the EPL matches are still played all over the country at the same time. When I first started watching Australian Rules football most of the Victorian Football League matches occurred on a Saturday afternoon as well. It was exciting to be at a match and see the progress scores on the scoreboard, or listen to the radio and go around the grounds. The last Saturday afternoon of the 1987 VFL home and away season, when every match was close and had an impact on the finishing order for the finals, still stands as one of my all-time favourite sporting days. The EPL sometimes has that sort of excitement when the title is up for grabs on the last match day.
America’s National Football League has a similar schedule to the EPL. Most of the matches are played in two blocks; the first on Sunday afternoon [American Eastern Standard Time], and the second on Sunday evening. Again then, it is not possible to watch a lot of matches in or close to their entirety as they happen. A side effect of this is that the matches that do not occur within these two blocks take on extra significance, namely the Monday night and Thursday night matches in the NFL, and the early Saturday afternoon and Sunday and Monday matches in the EPL. For me this significance does not even come from these being the only live matches for the day, since I can usually only catch the highlights for these matches. Nevertheless I almost always watch the highlights for the ‘off-match/game day’ bouts.
Down in Australia of course the schedules for the two main football leagues – the Australian Football League (the former VFL) and the National Rugby League – have become stretched out over the weekend so TV viewers can watch as many live matches as possible. This may have also been done so that, if you regularly worked on a Saturday afternoon, you would not miss all of your club’s matches. If your preference is to sit on the couch all weekend watching match after match, which personally I do not do except during the finals, then you probably really like this type of schedule. At the least it means you can watch a lot of matches live if you want to.
The other major American sports leagues aside from the NFL have so many games that surely few people would want to sit through all of them. Nevertheless you can watch a lot of games live if you want to, although not in their entirety, due to the time difference between the East Coast and West Coast games and to some extent the Central games as well. In the case of the National Basketball Association currently only my desire not to spend my whole day on the weekend watching basketball prevents me from starting my viewing at 11.00am [Australian Eastern Standard Time] and ending at 5.00pm, although we will see if that still holds once the playoffs begin.
Anyway, the point of all this is just to muse on the different approaches to scheduling, and how they affect your experience of following a sport. As I said, I sort of long for the days that most of the Australian Rules matches were played on a Saturday afternoon. I enjoyed my EPL ‘binge’ because it was a rarity, not because I would want to do it every week. Plus, given the time differences, on some days I would prefer to sleep.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Too Young To Be An Avenger: The All-New, All-Different Avengers

“YOU’RE A JERK!” That’s what the new, teenage Ms Marvel shouts at the new, teenage Nova on the very first page of Marvel’s ‘All-New, All-Different Avengers’ book.
The line-up in Marvel’s new Avengers book could be said to be composed of two groups. One group is the ‘old guard’, with a ‘new twist’: (the African-American) Captain America, (the female) Thor, (the speculated-to-be-different but original) Iron Man, and the Vision.

The other group is the new, teenage members: Spider-Man (the ‘Ultimate Comics’ version, not Peter Parker), Ms Marvel, and Nova. Hence, about half of the current team is of high-school age.

When I think of the Avengers, I tend to think of a team full of strong, athletic (admittedly mostly white) men and women in their late twenties to late thirties. You can see this in my dream Avengers line-up: there is not a single underdeveloped jaw among them.
My first exposure to the Avengers was ‘Avengers’ #300 (1989), which was drawn by John Buscema, and featured a team which included Captain America, Thor, Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman – all definite mainstays of the Marvel Universe. Big John Buscema’s characters were strong and dark, with solid brick walls as their backdrop. In that issue dark demons flew through the streets; foes to be handled by warriors, not kids a few years older than me.
The other Avengers team at the time, the West Coast Avengers also featured a team of Marvel mainstays, not a fresh face among them. It was drawn by John Byrne, who like Buscema, had a very classic, dramatic, semi-realistic comic book drawing style.
These were the comics that shaped my view of what the Avengers was and should be. Even the word Avenger back then, before they let everyone in, had connotations of having earned your stripes – characters had usually been kicking around the Marvel Universe for a few years before they were invited to join.  Therefore, having half of the team filled with ‘new, teenage’ Avengers will take some getting used to for me.
“YOU’RE A JERK!” It’s the type of petulant saying that you wouldn’t think you’d see in an Avengers book. It’s a preview of a mini-story at the end of the first issue in which Ms Marvel and Nova first meet, and Nova makes all the wrong impressions. Nova tries to be heroic by bringing down a giant foe; Ms Marvel – who knows the neighbourhood – goes ballistic at him for not thinking about the property damage. And then when Ms Marvel is angry at him Nova overcompensates by sharing his secret identity with her. Take away the superpowers and it’s more akin to the interactions you see in writer Mark Waid’s current ‘Archie’ stories than your traditional ‘Avengers’ comics.

The style of the art, especially in the Ms Marvel/Nova story by Mahmud Asnar, is lighter and looser than your traditional Avengers comic as well. Perhaps because of what I was first exposed to I’ve never been huge on the cartoony or manga-like style of drawing in American superhero comics, used by artists like Humberto Ramos and Joe Madureira. It seems to me you can’t do a true, epic, super-hero saga with figures like that. Assuming that is what you want to do …
The kids are alright though. Miles Morales the new Spider-Man, and Kamala Khan the new Ms Marvel, are two of Marvel’s most interesting and most acclaimed new characters from the past five years – aside from their adding some much needed diversity to the Marvel Universe. Their dialogue is light and slightly amusing. In line with this tone the ‘adults’, like Captain America and Iron Man, have lighter dialogue as well. If you can get into the fun of the book then it works.
Still it seems like the Avengers are in a bit of a lull, a notion supported by the sales figures. The fault to me mostly lies elsewhere – ‘All-New, All-Different’ seems the only somewhat consequential Avengers title now; ‘New Avengers’ has barely a member that matters, and ‘Uncanny Avengers’ got smothered under its use of continuity a while back. Further, Marvel’s other long-time pillars are in trouble: the Fantastic Four no longer has a title, the X-Men are far from their glory days, and even Spider-Man has seen better times.
If ‘All-New, All-Different’ has an important shortcoming then it is that it lacks the significance to make it seem like the Avengers, or even the Marvel (comic) Universe, matter anymore. Jonathan Hickman’s run may have been a downer tone-wise, but it had weight. In shedding this weight the ‘All-New, All-Different Avengers’, enjoyable as it is, carries the risk of being too slight to hold its ground.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Best of Everything in 2015

Best Book: ‘Misbehaving’ – Richard Thaler. ‘Between The World And Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I’m reading currently, is getting the most plaudits, and it is good. Thaler’s ‘Misbehaving’, which recounts the history of behavioural economics, has stuck with me more though. Based on Coates’ book, that’s probably very white of me.

Best Album: ‘My Love Is Cool’ – Wolf Alice. It seems sort of wrong to give best album to this over Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. ‘… Butterfly’ sounded like Album Of The Year the first time I heard it, but the problem is I haven’t really listened to it that much since. In contrast, for a while there I couldn’t stop listening to Wolf Alice’s album, and that’s why it gets the nod.

Best Song: ‘King Kunta’ – Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick gets best song though. ‘ … Kunta’, with its strong beat, is the first track that will pop into my head when I think about music in 2015.

Best TV Show: ‘Mad Men’. My favourite show of the past ten years came to a satisfying end, with all of the main characters ending up in places that made some sort of sense for them.

Best Film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This is more my favourite film of 2015, rather than what I think is the ‘best film’. I doubt that this will be a serious contender for any Best Picture gongs. But it was the best Star Wars movie for 30 years, and had me all revved up afterwards for the next instalment.

Best Comic: ‘Sex Criminals’ – Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. I almost gave this to ‘Saga’ for the fourth year in a row, but I enjoy ‘Sex Criminals’ just as much, so I’ll give it to that instead. It’s a very funny (and very dirty) series.

Best Sporting Event: National Rugby League Grand Final. I did almost pick the Cricket World Cup final, which fulfilled one of my life dreams to see Australia win a cricket World Cup in person. The final though wasn’t particularly memorable in its own right, whereas the NRL Grand Final between the Broncos and the Cowboys definitely was, to the point where people were wondering if it may have been the best grand final ever. The last ten minutes – which saw the North Queensland team score the tying try just as the siren sounded, miss the conversion that could have won it, and then win the match in extra time in any case – was definitely the most intense ten minutes of league I’ve seen. 

Best Sportsperson: Stephen Curry. Bill Simmons called Curry’s first 20 games this NBA season – which his Golden State Warriors won all of – the best 20 game streak by anyone in the history of basketball. His numbers, particularly his three-point shooting, were all insane. Already the best shooter ever, and there has never been another player quite like him.

Best Website: Grantland. Sadly missed.

Best Post: AFL Club Songs Ranked By Ambition and Boastfulness. Read this and you’ll never listen to some AFL club theme songs in the same way again.

Best Twitter Feed: Titus O’Reily. I do like his clever one-liners about AFL and cricket.

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 116

FILM: The New Yorker interviews an author who has recently done a whole lot of research on ‘Star Wars’

FILM: And again on ‘Star Wars’ – who are Rey’s parents? (Spoilers in the article for the new 'Star Wars' flick.)

MUSIC: The most common names in songs. ‘J’ names are popular.

FOOTBALL: Evidence for the case that passing is more important to winning in the National Football League than rushing.

FILM: The top 100 grossing movie stars in the US of all time. Check out the average box office take of #3.