Monday, July 31, 2006

Better than zero

Tilt is the worst enemy of the poker player. Last Friday, heads up for first prize, I was in the short stack against young M. I find him very hard to read but I'm sure that's purely psychological. He has a lock over me. I know how to beat him but somehow I let him win pots that I'm in. So I have about 6500 chips and he has more like 30000. The blinds are at 300/600 or 200/400, something like that, so I'm close to desperate.

I pick up K6s and make it 2000 to go. Realistically, I could and probably should have gone all in. He raised me all in. A glance at the pot and my stack and I called. I put him on an ace, which was a good read. I considered it possible he was bluffing but I figured with a stronger hand he'd have the sense not to push me off it but would call and let me bet into him on the flop.

Against the range that I considered possible (although not entirely likely), I was about 55/45, and against A8, 60/40. Maths-oriented types will see straight away that I called 4500 to win about 9000 (my 2000, the 2000 that he put in to call that, a stake matching the rest of my stack and the blinds).

All in all, not such a bad call, you might think. I didn't have the best of it, but I was taking good odds.

But still I think it was bad. Because although I had figured it for a decent call maths-wise, that isn't why I made the call. I made it because I felt that being run off yet another hand would be dispiriting and I would lose the heart I'd need to fight back.

So neither of us hit and I finished second again. I don't mind not winning. I play poker for money, not the acclaim of my peers, and the difference between the prizes was only one buyin.

I do mind tilting though. I have to work a lot harder on remaining focused and making my plays with my head and not my emotions. Sure, it hurts that players who I am confident I can beat manage to win tourneys that I only come second or third in.

Am I overstating my ability? No. I think I am about one rung above useless. I don't have any illusions about how difficult becoming a good player is, or how unlikely it is for me to make it. I tend to have more illusions about how good others are! The other night, playing at the University of Queensland, I picked up a pair of hooks. A guy raised a smallish amount and me and one other called. The flop came 772. He bet four times the pot, a huge bet.

Nineteen times out of 20, playing donkeys online, this bet will mean "I have a small pair or AQ and I want to scare you out of the pot". It's what you might call a "go away" bet.

The third guy folded and I raised all in. The bettor called it. He turned over QQ.

Whoops. I had overestimated the guy. I thought he was too cluey to have made a go away bet with a decent hand. The third guy said he had folded tens and what a great fold that was. I was thinking god, you're even worse than the other guy if you don't know to call a go away bet with a biggish pair. Yes, he would have lost to my hooks but that's poker.

So I have to learn the lesson that knowing how good you are at poker is precisely half the information you need! You must also be clear on how good you are compared with the guys you play against.

At the level I play, I do okay. This week, I met my first target. I have increased my bankroll from $20 to more than $200 (this is my online bankroll, not counting whatever I've won live, which because I play for fun more than anything else, I don't consider).

I am still crawling rather than running, going at a bit less than 3BB/100, although that includes a big stretch when I played cluelessly and lost quite a lot of big bets. I have now played enough hands that I can have some confidence that I'm a winning player, although that's a very long way short of being any good. However, experience is a big part of becoming skilled, so I can hope to get better with practice.

And the practice is fun! Whatever else it is, poker is fun. It's a game of cards, in which I try to outwit people from all over the world. So wish me hot cards and soft opponents innit.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A review

The essence of storytelling is "Something happened". The writer tells the reader something that happened. That's the bottom line. Of course, you can futz around with "themes" and so on, but stories generally should be pushed along by what happened, how and why.

Writers need to consider the tradition of storytelling, to put themselves in the shoes of a raconteur, sat fireside with a small group. You need to be aiming at having that audience straining forward to catch your every word, afraid to miss anything. Aim at that, and write tightly enough that missing a word really will detract from the experience, and your stories will be fantastic.

I often mention to writers in alt.fiction.original that their stories lack dynamics. The following is a very good example. I'm reposting it because it exemplifies how I think about fiction and why this particular bad writer wrote something poor.

If I could sum up for him why his stories -- and this is typical -- are no good, I would point out that he does not create potential. The reader is not excited about the unravelling of tensions he creates. You can think of a story as a hill. Rapidly build up a hill of potential, then push the reader down it (they don't have to reach the bottom and you can have them climb back up a little if you want). Not every story works like that but it doesn't hurt to master that idea before striking out into more static work.

Decaying Atheist wrote:
> This is the first attempt. I wrote it a day or two after the challenge
> was set. I edited and revised it twice. It still doesn't feel quite
> right. I just don't know what to do with it from here.

> The End of the End

> The rain left a swampy mess in her garden.

A "swamp" then.

Always take the simpler option. You will be astonished at how much you
improve as a writer if you follow that advice. When your writing is
absolutely as simple as you can make it, *then* you can flower it up.

> The last few flowers
> looked like

as though

>they had attempted to crawl to higher ground to avoid the
> invading water. They

Read your work back to avoid mistakes like this.

>violet ones

The violet ones are called "violets".

>had no luck and were quickly
> consumed.

This would have had a lot more impact had you began "The rain consumed
the flowers..."


Telling us what the rain *did* creates a dynamic first up. Telling us
what it *left* makes your piece immediately static.

Think in terms of motion, dynamics. Think in terms of how you drag the
reader along with you.

> She looked outside the window and frown again.

Frowned. You'll avoid these lazy, careless errors if you read your work
back before posting it.

> Her frown,
> her five hundredth that day, reflected back from the window.

As they do.

But why tell us that? Obviously she's going to be pissed off that her
garden is ruined.

Only show the reader what they don't know. It's an important principle
that will tighten up your writing. No good writer wastes much time on
painting those parts of the picture you already see.

> "Oh, I hate when I look like that." She pushed the hair away from her
> eyes and went back to the task at hand. She lit the candle in the
> center of the table. Next, she placed the plates, one on each side of
> the table.

A common problem for writers in this group is that they do not
understand that "scene-setting" is boring.

Nothing has happened in this story. You have posed the reader very few
questions and you have not created a dynamic. Questions create a
potential, like coiling a spring, which you can allow to unravel
through the story. Action is an alternative, creating situations for
the protagonists that create the same potential in a different way.

> Emily checked the oven; the roast was coming along well. It was his
> favorite. She wanted to make this reunion somewhat pleasant. Roger had
> been gone for a long time.

Okay, finally we have something. A woman we do not care about is
reuniting with a man we don't know. So at least we are asking who Roger
is to her.

> Each day she would get a letter, a letter that she never read. She
> saved the letters because she was too scared to throw them away.

Hmmm. Scared of what though? Take care to make characters' motivations

Read the first chapter of the Corrections. There a woman keeps
letters. Contrast that with your scene here.

> She
> never opened them because she feared what awaited her inside, the love
> of a man she couldn't stand even thinking about.

> Roger was returning from overseas duty. A full year alone and the two
> declared their relationship to be strong enough to survive a year
> apart. She went along to smooth the waves. She saw no choice. He had
> promised to go and she couldn't stop him.

> The phone exploded into a ring that drove Emily's hand to her heart.
> It was a heart attack moment if ever she had had one.. The caller ID
> displayed an unknown name. She stopped, her hand trembling over the
> phone. She was waiting for it to stop. The phone just needed to stop
> ringing; it was the only thing that would allow her to keep her
> sanity. After six rings, the phone settled back. Emily went back to
> the dinner preparation.

This is too overwritten. Making too much of too little is the same
failing as not creating a dynamic. It makes the story flow like toffee.
Try to get at least to treacle.

> Five minutes later, the phone rang again. Her heart jumped, and she
> almost went hand first into the hot gravy. Another unknown name on the
> caller ID. Finally, she worked up the nerve and picked up the phone.

> "Hello"

> The voice on the other side


>was familiar but strained. Obvious pent up
> emotions lingered in the air.

That's enough for me. You're right the emotions are "obvious". You've
laid them on thick in the preceding. But this is shit, straight out of
a Cartland. Actually, I think even she would consider having emotions'
lingering in the air!

Here's a tip for you. Always be asking why you expect the reader to go
on to the next paragraph. What reward have you promised? If you cannot
answer the question enthusiastically, you need to rewrite. I think at
this point I'm looking at a nervy woman who is reuniting with some
geezer. I don't care about her and I know you're going to throw in a

Here's a tip for the whole group. Give up the twists. It's like you're
telling really boring jokes just to get to punchlines that a small
child could have invented. Look outside that idiom of storytelling.
Consider leaving a few loose ends, so that your reader is left thinking
about what they've read.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sally Anne (for D)

So I fucked her fucked her fucked her fucked her. I fucked her and drowned her in a river. In a river of blood, I pushed in her head. In a river of blood, I pushed until she was dead. I pushed in her head and then I said, I fucked you, bitch, I fucked you, I scratched the itch.

And she said, you talk too much, you talk too fucking much, can’t you just push in my head in a river of blood, when all’s said and done, let’s just have fun, when all’s done and said, push in my head.

So I fucked her fucked her fucked her fucked her. I fucked her and kissed her and she bit my tongue. She bit my tongue and claimed it was fun. A mouth full of lead, I pushed in her head, I pushed her until she was dead, I fucked up her head, my mouth full of lead. She said. She said, when I am a ghost and all this is forgotten, when this world is over and washed away all that is rotten, when I am a ghost and you are forgotten. She said, I do not know who you are.

It is hard to rid yourself of a memory that is yet to form. It is hard to rid yourself of a child who has not yet been born. It is hard to heal the hurt when no one has touched you. She says, I want you to touch me, I want you to caress me, I want you to hurt me, I want you to undress me. Reveal me. If you reach inside me. If you can reach inside me, pull me out and unconceal me. Steal me. From every man who ever had me as a memory, you can thieve me. From every man who’s ever dreamed about me, how deeply they were sleeping, none ever to know me.

I think she is weeping, perhaps she is smiling. Perhaps she is laughing, perhaps she is crying. I stop and I’m waiting, still she is moving. Don’t stop, she is saying, don’t stop what you’re doing. You have to go through it, you have to move to it.

I am thinking she’s beautiful and someone has said it.

It’s not me, I’m saying, it’s someone else who’s saying. It’s not me, I’m shouting, it’s someone else who’s shouting. Suddenly, I am knowing, suddenly, I know but soon it’s forgotten, how soon it’s forgotten, suddenly, I am knowing, it’s me that is saying but me, I’m saying nothing at all.

Goodbye, she says, she’s lying. Goodbye, she says, it really was fine. Goodbye, she says, we shared three lines and a really fucking good time. Goodbye goodbye goodbye, in the moment before she leaves, she is mine all mine. In the moment before she leaves, she is fine.

I am smoking in the first light of dawn. I am smoking in the first moments after new love is born. I am smoking in the moments before I realise I will never see her again. I am smoking in the realisation that dreams never end but love ends, love ends, love ends and when it ends, you’re dead, they’ve pushed in your head.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Eighties fan

When I were a lad, I was a big fan of indie music. If it had jangly guitars and whiny adolescents singing about how crap it is not to have a girlfriend, I lapped it up. So I recently bought the Rough Trade Indiepop set. It's chockers with good stuff from the 80s: When you're sad, I could be in heaven, Safety net. Okay, there are a few bands missing (the usual legal problems) but it's a decent representation of the scene of that time.

But also lurking in there is a slice of pop perfection, something so fantastic it knocked me off my feet. I'd never heard of the band and they weren't around in the eighties, but Camera Obscura's Eighties Fan is as good as it gets.

When it comes to music, I enjoy a range of stuff but in my view the peak is the three-minute pop song. Nothing moves me more. Nothing makes me take joy in this life quite as much as belting out the chorus of a song about nothing much and everything. Who can listen to Say a little prayer and not think it's the most wonderful collision of tune and voice? Who could hear All my loving and not join me and Zenella as we tunelessly clout the chorus for six? Who does not feel a lift in their heart when they hear Heavenly pop hit? If that who is you, what is wrong with you?

You don't get that from rock. You don't get it from Bach, whatever pleasures he has for you. You don't get it from your fucking Aphex acid. You get it from three, four minutes of nothing much in particular and everything that matters. And like all small wonderful things in this life, you can just about only find it when you're not looking.

Among the cedars

A beautiful and humane piece that captures the agony of people who are caught in the middle of someone else's war.

This weird shit though is why this nightmare is being unleashed on the Lebanese people. Who thinks like this? Israel is not retaliating against Hizbullah. The Lebanese government is not "responsible" for Hizbullah. Certainly, the people of Beirut aren't. What are they supposed to do, get on a bus and personally chastise the naughty boys? Does this guy simply not remember that the civil war that tore Lebanon apart ended in a stalemate because it simply was not possible for any one faction to destroy the others? (Not that they didn't try.)

This though is the worst of this guy's lunacy: "No country in the world could remain silent and abandon its citizens when its neighbour strikes without any provocation." Well, one country would. IRA terrorists used to operate out of the Republic. We accepted that it wasn't possible for the Irish to destroy a militia that blended into the population (and with which it sympathised, of course). We did not bomb Dublin. Neither has Spain bombed Paris, even though ETA operates out of southwest France.

Sadly, this is the tone of intellectual discourse out of Israel. The security situation has pushed a nation that was founded by leftists to the right, and guys like this get a ready hearing. The note of whining -- poor Israel -- is the leitmotif of rightist discussion of the Middle East. But Israel is not and has never been a victim. It was created in blood, maintained by force and today has no intention of reaching a just settlement with the people its state displaced, which it uses any fiction it thinks will play to pretend never lived there, have no claim to the land it stands on and are, as I have noted, savages who just want to kill Jews. While I have some sympathy with Israel, and none at all with Hizbullah, who are in no way a force for good and should not be mistaken for one, not by the Western left and not by the Palestinians either, every time it murders some of its neighbours I am reminded that it too is playing its part in perpetuating its own nightmare.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The new antisemitism

"'It's in our interest for Syria to stay out of Lebanon and for this government in Lebanon to succeed and survive."

And of course the best way to help governments succeed is to blow up bridges and power stations.


I think this view must be considered. What exactly is the reasoning behind permitting Israel to aggress beyond its borders while insisting that its neighbours do not?

The answer seems to be quite clear. The West has, almost since encountering them, considered Arabs to be practically children, savages who cannot be civilised but must from time to time be chastised. (Israel is clearly understood to be part of the West. It's key to understanding attitudes to Israel across the political spectrum to understand that. It is also important to grasp that antiarabism has become the new antisemitism: the unthinking hatred of Jews that in former times characterised Europe from top to bottom has lessened a great deal, while a similar hatred of Arabs (and other dark-skinned followers of Muhammad who tend to merge in with Arabs in the popular consciousness) has grown.) Israel's attitude to the Arabs, in particular, has been characterised by paternalism: Israel offers the Arabs take-it-or-leave it deals, resembling a father offering a child the choice between doing their homework or receiving a spanking. The laughable offers it has made to the Palestinians of a disconnected jumble of bantustans have not been the kind of thing equals present to one another; rather, they have been entirely dismissive of the Palestinians' aspirations. The recent attacks on Lebanon show a strain of the same thinking: killing Arabs, even civilians, just doesn't matter, so long as it serves the purpose of saving Jewish lives. The notion that one type of person has more intrinsic value than another, and as a corollary that their life has more worth, simply because of their ethnicity is precisely how racism is defined. The Holocaust could happen because Germans were able to convince themselves that Jews were less human than them. It is dangerous to start down that path, but we are some way along it. When the government states its belief that it is worth a few dead Arabs as "collateral damage" to prevent its own soldiers from being hurt, it is on the road to agreeing that we should simply nuke Baghdad to remove the threat to us that its citizens pose. (Of course, they are not far down that road but it should be clearly recognised that A can and does lead to B and C. The Germans did not begin with "let's kill all the Jews".)

It can be argued that the Israelis created their own predicament by making their state in the middle of the Arab world. It can also be argued that the Arabs should get over it, and are using the presence of Israel as a distraction from their more pressing problems. Neither attitude is much help in finding a solution.

It's easy to understand that would-be regional hegemons, such as Syria and Iran, will scheme against a powerful Israel, and that Israel will seek to diminish them and to hurt their proxies. These powerplays won't end until the broader regional issues are settled, as was the case in Europe, where centuries of jostling ended with a settlement that suited all. But it must suit all. Any settlement imposed by Israel and unsatisfactory to the regional players is not going to bring the lasting peace Europe enjoys. However, while Israel, and its Western allies, considers Arabs the niggers of the Middle East, it's not going to happen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!

I do not know what else can be said about people whose only cause is genocide. It is almost as though they have decided that if the people who despise them will not live with them, they must be destroyed.

Cards unsharp

A key skill in poker is judgement, particularly of your opponents. I think this is especially so in no limit. In limit, you can robotically make good plays (if you know what they are) and at the low levels I play, you will end up a winner.

But no limit does not permit textbook plays to the same extent. You have to read your opponents and understand them. I have learned two things in the past few days: one thing from Friday night, where I once more cashed but did not win (that is not a complaint, although of course I want to win, because money is how the score is kept in poker); one other from Sklansky and Miller's no limit book (I have learned lots from it but this thing in particular).

The first is that I am too prone to give my opponents too much credit. I assume that what is obvious to me must be obvious to them. I rarely suffer from this flaw in life in general. I am generally able to understand that people are different from me, think differently from me, know different things than I do.

In the key hand on Friday, with blinds at 75-150, I raised with 99 to 500. R, a poor player who calls too much, called. He was in EP and had limped, so I assumed he had to have something worth playing. The flop came T77 rainbow. No set for me but still a good flop. He bet 2000.

This was a massive overbet. I had seen him make this play before on this kind of flop and he had been bluffing. I went into the tank. If he had paired the ten, I was beaten, and could not hope to draw out on him. I would lose 2000 if I called. But if he had whiffed the flop with OCs and was now bluffing, I would take half his stack. I assumed that he put me on big OCs myself. He must know that I would not call a big bet if I had missed this flop.

Donkeys often bluff on a paired flop, or when the turn pairs the board. In limit, I call it the donkbluff/donktrips situation. The donkey almost always has trips or nothing. A good player will not do it because it's such an obvious bluff. R is not a good player, not even at our level.

I felt pressured by the crowd. I had been talking and laughing all night, holding up play for no reason, because it's fun and I'm unreadable if I'm always smiling. But they wanted me to decide. I need to think about this one, I said.

I have an image at the Friday night table as a tight, aggressive player. It's not the wrong image because that's how I try to play the game. But I had been playing fairly timidly. I arrived late and had a bad seat. All the more aggro players were sat to my left, along with L, a calling station of the worst kind (who, to my chagrin, won the night, which she would not have done had I been seated to her right). This meant I could not raise with poor cards because I had to fear the big reraise, and could not limp with trash because most pots were getting raised when I did. In this kind of game, unless you want to play low-percentage poker, you have to wait for decent cards to make your plays. So I had cards here, and needed to make the most of them. I didn't want to fold away a decent chance at a big score.

I called. He had QT. He hadn't even thought about what I might have. I had credited him with thinking about my cards but he hadn't. Not at all. He'd just made a terrible call PF and got lucky. If I'd raised with AT or a pair of tens, he'd have gone busto. Later that night, he made a heavy reraise with QJ, which I called with AJs. A textbook example of why you don't play rubbish like QJ too fast. S, an aggro player, one of the better in the game, had raised with 55 and called the raise (a loose call because he didn't have the odds for it, even if he took both our stacks with a set he would not have made enough). I whiffed the flop. R checked, I checked and so did S. I was immediately suspicious. This is a guy who will bet when he has the button, particularly if he feels he can steal it. Last time we played, he trapped me by making what looked like a probe bet, which I raised all in. He had a set that time and I was cooked. The turn was a blank. R checked, I checked. S bet, not heavily given the pot. R called, I folded. I knew what was going on this time. He showed a set at showdown. I was a bit annoyed that he'd made the loose call preflop. I had R beaten and the pot would have made up for the one I had lost with 99 earlier.

The other thing I learned, from S&M, is that playing no limit as though it was limit with bigger bets is the reason I am often getting to the money on Fridays without having a big enough stack to contend for the win. When you think it through, it's quite obvious. In limit, you chisel away at it. You go into hands with values and you beat players who have gone in with trash. You don't win big in a session, although many of the pots you win are big, but you are solid enough to win often enough. I don't play exactly the same on a Friday night, of course, but I have been playing in what you might call Harrington style. But I'm not sufficiently adapting my play to the table. These players are mostly loose and terrible. I should be limping with many more hands, calling raises if I have to, and using my superior skills to extract the chips when I have a hand.

L, who won the night, is a good example. There is no way decent players should let her win (although it was hardly S's fault that when she pushed after his raise when on the small stack and he called, she had QQ to his JJ). She is awesomely predictable. She ran quite hot, which suited her style, because she will only get into pots with good values. But on the flop, she wants to call, not bet. She will only bet if she really has something. Otherwise she'll check, fold if she has nothing, call if she has a decent pair. I couldn't get into a hand with her, so I had to sit and watch other players betting weak hands into her, which she called, called and called, taking down several big pots. Against this kind of player, your strategy is simple. If they check, you bet if you have top pair or better and check anything else. You don't allow the pot to become big unless you are sure you are ahead. If they bet, you fold if you have nothing. You don't hope that middle pair is good enough because it won't be. When you act after her and she limps, you limp in with anything. You know that if you hit, she'll pay you off, and if you miss, you will not have to pay a heavy price.

Head's up, S took leave of his senses. He tried to play her the way you would the normal passive internet player. He raised most pots and played aggressively on the flop. But L just called when she had it, folded when she didn't. He threw his stack at her, and she ate it up. This is almost the reverse of how he should have played! If you have the edge over another player in skill but not necessarily in cards, you want small pots, in which you outplay the opponent. You do not want to make the pots big because this favours the poorer player, and allows them the odds to call with poor holdings. You want them to make mistakes, not correctly call you down in huge pots, which they then suck out on you in.

So I have learned that I should not be raising with hands I don't want to play for big pots with. In limit you do, because you have an edge and can exploit it. In NL, you don't because the edge your hand would have if you could guarantee a showdown, as you can in limit, can be destroyed by the action. Miss a flop with AQ in limit and you might still win against a couple of players. Miss it in NL and chances are you are done. And I should be getting into more hands, even if I have to pay a bigger price than I'm happy with. I wasn't dissatisfied with Friday night. I only had five hands that I would even play in limit: 99 twice, 88, AJs and AK, very slim pickings, and I still made the money. My last hand was K8 and I pushed all in PF. S called, a bit loosely again (which doesn't upset me: I want players to make loose calls, of course), with J9. The flop came 9xx and, just one of those things, the turn and river were also 9s. I had earlier busted M senior with quad 8s, so I suppose poetic justice prevailed.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Sittin' and goin'

There is a moment in a sitngo (and, I imagine, in any tournament but for obvious reasons I have not reached that moment) when you become sure that you are the best player at the table and will, luck allowing, win it. It becomes clear how you can beat the other players. At the low buyins I play, usually it becomes clear that the players are not aggressive enough to beat me and will allow me to steal too many pots. Lots of players believe that they can win if they avoid difficult hands and difficult decisions, and play only the big hands for big bets. But this style will take you to the bubble and no further. What they do not quite realise is that it is too straightforward a plan to win against a player who simply will not allow them to make pots for all the chips. (They could push with every hand, and some do, but this simply gives the better player the chance to pick which hand to risk the chips on.) Actually, most players are too straightforward, period.

They check when they have nothing, bet big when they have top pair or better. They rarely chance it with bottom pair, even heads up. They do not bet enough to make it unprofitable to chase them with weak draws: I mean, really, if you are betting T100 into a T800 pot on the turn, no one is folding a gutshot.

But you win a tournament because you push the smaller edges. You bet when you have nothing and fold to big raises that tell you you're beaten (because the fish just never quite learn that they will make more if they simply call). You cut the odds when you have good but not great hands (so that if they chase, they lose over a dozen hands, even if they win this one). You watch the players and learn which guy will go in with top pair and which will trap. Guess which one you try to play pots against?

Other players are too aggressive. They are probably even easier to beat. Bluffing is vastly overrated by poor players and the idiots who steal blinds with huge raises or build big pots with good but not great starting hands are just ripe plums waiting to be picked by a skilful player.

I am not a good player. Maybe I will, maybe I won't learn enough to become one. But I have felt the awesome calm that comes over me when I know I'm going to win. That's at least worth the trouble of playing.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A sekrit

I am going to tell you a secret. Not many people know it. When you know it, you will go and get your heart broken by something beautiful.

How lucky you are. You are going to have something wonderful introduced into your life. You are going to know the sound of my inside, reaching out, yearning and pure, wanting to touch you but shying away.

The name of the secret is Heidi Berry. Run, don't walk, to Amazon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Crouching tiger, hidden talent

Brilliant. I defy any Englander not to laugh like a drain.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Forza Italia!

Well, they say it's no way to end a tournament, but it's usually how England's ends, so why not?

It will be remembered for Zidane's dismissal, which is a pity, because he had, a shaky first twenty minutes aside, again run the midfield, harking back to his pomp. France seemed to have timed their run through the tournament to perfection, peaking at the final. Italy, too, looked a different proposition from the team that scraped through against Australia -- although it would be a mistake to think that they were overwhelmed by the Aussies. All in all, it was an excellent final, which they haven't been recently. Two sides came to play good football and some of the world's finest players excelled. Both of these teams were far superior to England, and either would have been a worthy winner. It's fair that France can take consolation that they matched the world champions. And Italy did what it took. Australia might feel that they could have gone to the semis, but they didn't have the moxie to score against Italy. There isn't a great deal between top and middle in football but you do need that bit extra. One needs only look at the quarterfinal lineup to realise that. Ukraine aside, every single one of the tournament's fancied sides made the quarters (which were excellent games of football, barring England's scrappy draw with Portugal). Quality told. Italy surprised me. Pretournament, I had not thought they would be good enough (I tipped Brazil, with France my tip for a place). But as I noted during the tournament, they had what it took. And they did. They are worthy winners, worthy champions, the best team in football, and the troubles of Italian football have been, for a short while, burned away by Pirlo, Gattuso, Toni and, of course, Fabio Grosso.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Another tower of babble

I've ever been quite fond of Jimbo Wales. Some think he is a monster, an operator, who is using the efforts of hundreds of thousands to make dollars. Well, he probably is all that, but he's always struck me as more of a bumbler than a sharpie.

His latest wheeze is a political wiki. What a great idea! It's worked fantastically for knowledge, creating a sprawling, chaotic, fundamentally useless ragbag of bollocks, which has served as the web's number one arsehole flypaper. Now we can get thousands of schoolboys to spew their half-baked, illiterate political philosophy all over the web.

What tickles me is that Jimbo thinks this is "democracy" in action. The guy's an objectivist! If ever there were a "philosophy" that fundamentally despised the common cause, objectivism is it. I would need some convincing that "fuck you, Jack, I'm all right" is a strong statement of democratic values.

Maybe I shouldn't mock. Dialogue is good, isn't it? Well, not really. When you gather a crowd and let them talk, what you generally get is babble. The interwebnet is chockers with babble. While it doesn't surprise me that Jimbo wants to corner the market in babble about politics (after all, it's more content for scrapers to smear all over the web and another way for him to get his face in the papers), I fear that the chances of anything positive coming from it are about the same as something positive coming from the Uselessnet.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Little flames

The other night, having smoked a couple of joints, I felt my flesh melt from my bones. I was sliding into the mattress, putrefying. (So remind me not to listen to Lift yr skinny fists... when I've been smoking.)

It felt like an insight but into what I'm not so sure. I know I am terrified of dying and can upset myself by thinking about it. I think this is plain sensible. Anyone who is unperturbed by the thought of their death simply doesn't value what they will lose sufficiently or has bamboozled themselves with promises that they could not rationally hope to have delivered. (I've always felt that the central preposterousness of having 70 years to prove yourself worthy of eternal life should be enough in itself to turn anyone with a sense of the ridiculous away from Xtianity. "God loves you but he's going to truly fuck you up if you are naughty in this life." Hmmm. Doesn't sound much like love to me. "Jesus died for your sins." Yes, but why? My children are naughty sometimes, and I might get angry about it, but I don't feel they need to repent it or be severely punished for it. Why? Because I love them. I've never been able to sign up to the "you've got to be cruel to be kind" school of thought. I prefer "you've got to be kind to be kind" because it makes a lot more sense. I never really feel people are being kind to me when they're kicking me in the guts, whatever lesson they hope the kicking is teaching me. Actually, what lesson is God teaching us? M, an acquaintance of mine, was visiting the other day -- his wife, D, is my wife's oldest friend. He had been at the wedding of D's sister. He was about to go to the wedding dinner and he wasn't looking forward to it. D's sister is a hardcore Xtian -- well, she has to be, being a minister -- and the crowd at the dinner would not be M's type, nor mine: I believe three things should definitely happen at a wedding: two people should end the day married who didn't begin it that way, those same two people should have sex regardless of all other considerations including drunkenness, and everyone should get thoroughly pissed. D's sister's crowd don't do "pissed": Jesus doesn't like it, apparently. Anyway, clearly the talk earlier in the day had touched on eternal rewards because M was saying "surely God won't put me in the same place as Hitler for swearing?" "Fuck no," I said (the joke was lost on him, weak as it was). How ridiculous. How can anyone believe that a universe-creating supreme being, who loves you, will punish a bit of pottymouthedness with eternal hellfire?)

Still, at least they have something to look forward to, although I amuse myself by imagining them to be like the child who is convinced they will get a bike for Xmas but instead gets Meccano (although Meccano is probably a better gift than oblivion). I picture Catholic priests, at the moment of their expiry, going "Shit! If I'd only known, I'd have had some SEX!" Forswearing life's pleasures might have made sense to Pascal but I'd want a signed promise from the Almighty rather than a book some half-crazed geezer wrote when he'd been out in the sun a bit long. (On that note, if you haven't read it, I direct you to Michael Moorcroft's Ecce homo. It's one of those books that is very funny without having any actual jokes.)

Sometimes I imagine that your mind will stop like a clock on the point of dying, that you will spend eternity mulling over... well, whatever. That sounds a lot like hell. But I am on the whole a materialist and I do not think we have anything that can survive our bodies. It's nice to think we have little flames that burn within us, and metaphorically, the idea works for me, but the notion is just an artefact of our disbelief that we can really be nothing more than the echoes of electrons' bouncing around the cells of our brains. In many areas of this life though, you can take either a romantic view or a hardnosed one, each unjustifiable by the observable facts, but each making a huge difference to how you live your life, or at least how you see it. Believing we are more than robots leads us to care for each other; strict materialism could not. I think of the conflict as being one between the rational side that a thinking person must have and the "human" side, the side that does not forget that we can be hurt by the world and those in it. Rationally, with our short, fragile lives, which are prone to becoming emptied of value for us, we might feel that we should simply fuck everyone else and make the most of what is there for us. (Adherents of antihuman philosophies such as objectivism have indulged their rational side to an extent that barely allows them to be human at all.) The human side though does not let us take that path. It's the side that hopes, that feels, that rages against the dying of the light. It is probably wrong, probably represents all that is nonexistent, but it's what allows us to love and be loved, to look beneath the skin and see those little flames, and we're better for it.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Out but not down

I knew we were beaten when I saw Clemence writing out the names of our penalty takers with ten minutes to go. I am sitting there thinking "Bring on Walcott, let's go out in glory" and Sven is sitting there thinking "If I keep it tight, I can lose on penalties and everyone will just think we tossed a coin and lost". This way, Sven can feel he did his best.

Well, his best was not good enough. Against a side of limited ambition and very little punch up front, we packed the midfield and allowed our most potent weapon to wander around up front on his own. How much more exciting it would have been had we played 442 -- the system our players best understand -- with Rooney plus one, Lennon and Cole ordered to play as wingers, and the team trying to get the ball forward as quickly as possible. In other words, the way all our top teams, bar Chelsea, play at their best. But Sven doesn't want to win the English way. He wants to win the Sven way. And Sven has always played a negative, defensive style, looking to score on the break. At Lazio, he won a scudetto because Veron was very much suited to the slow pace of Italian football and excelled (one can only wonder why Ferguson thought he would do well in the much faster, harder world of the Premiership). With Veron quarterbacking, Lazio were unstoppable on the break. When Sven took over as England coach, he must have been drooling. Here was a team that featured Owen and Gerrard, men manufactured for football on the break, used to exactly the style Sven wanted to play under Houllier. That style almost destroyed Gerrard as a player. Now he constantly looks for the killer ball and is almost unable to play constructive football of any other kind.

I am distraught that McClaren is replacing Sven. He's the worst possible choice. Not only is he a thoroughly defensive coach, whose Middlesbrough are notable for their desire to get men behind the ball, but he is cluelessly out of his depth at this level, as Sevilla so ably demonstrated. Oh for a Scolari! Or a Hiddink. Look what he was able to do with the limited materials available to him in Korea and Australia. The Aussies must be kicking themselves! If they had only shown a little more adventure against Italy, or been a little luckier (because the ref could have waved play on when Grosso took a noser over Neill's leg), they would have been a very good chance against Ukraine. They really could have made the semis. Hiddink is a genius, several rungs above Sven. He does not have a fixed system. He takes the material he has and plays to suit it. He makes the best of what he has. And Hiddink's leadership and shrewd use of his players brought players such as Chipperfield to a level even they must have thought was beyond them. They were the equals of Italy, and Italy might well go on to win the cup. I would settle even for a Domenech, who has brought together a France side, who, aging and undervalued, play as a team and play very well. Vieira was massive against Brazil, denying them space and time to play football, and Ribery, what can you say? He's been a revelation. The awards though must go to Zidane, truly inspirational, showing flashes of an ability that has been unparalleled in world football since Maradona hung up his boots.

The papers will of course now duly hang Rooney, but even though he plays for the Scum, I can't join the chorus of vilification. I thought the sending off was very harsh. What was he sent off for? Surely not stamping because that was something and nothing; at worst, he clumsily stood on the Portugee. And you couldn't send him off for pushing Ronaldo: he deserves a fair play medal for not punching him. I say we blame Sven: when we lost a player, he straight away took off our most effective attacking player. Bringing on Crouch was a good move, and he worked very hard to keep us in it, but he never had any support. We could and should have taken a chance, at least pushing a man up to be there for knockdowns and as an outlet. It was a courageous effort to hold out for an hour a man down, but I think our players are far superior to theirs, and we could actually have tried to win. When we did get numbers forward, we made chances. Portugal didn't. They simply had no sharp end. Pauleta is not good enough at this level and they literally don't have anyone else.

But what was Pekerman thinking? A goal up against Germany, coasting to victory against a side that, although competitive, weren't looking like scoring, he decided to shut it down, took off Riquelme and brought on another defensive midfielder. This was terrible, showing once more the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Argentina. Capable of brilliant, astonishing attacking football, yet also capable of cynical ugliness. Argentina's shape was destroyed and suddenly Germany had space to work in. Borowski started to use the holes that appeared effectively. Once they had scored, the stage was set for Messi. He had to come on. Pekerman simply switched strikers, even though Crespo still looked effective enough. I can understand taking of Riquelme: he can drift out of a game and doesn't usually look strong as the match wears on. But I cannot understand replacing him with Cambiasso. Argentina simply stopped posing Germany any problems. Frings -- massive in this match - became able to push up the pitch, and an air of panic hung about Argentina. Once Germany scored, Argentina lacked the creativity they had previously shown. They were crying out for a playmaker or at least someone more comfortable in the attacking third than Mascherano and Gonzalez, good though they were.

The Messi question is interesting. Here is a player who is thought to be potentially the greatest his country has produced -- and students of football will know that that means possibly the best we have seen (if Maradona is not the greatest footballer you have seen, you are either a bit older than me or you do not know greatness when you see it). He has set La Liga alight and many -- me included -- thought he could well turn out to be the star of the tournament. He came into it carrying an injury, but even once recovered Pekerman didn't seem to fancy him. The tournament -- despite a high standard of football, much better than Japan/Korea -- has not provided a star. No one has really stood out. It has given us a couple of tremendous disappointments: Ronaldinho, unable to get into any of the games he played; Rooney, out of position and finally the villain; England, dour, tactically and technically fish out of water -- the best group of English players of our generation? Maybe, but, as Brazil, the greatest disappointment of the tournament, found out, reputations win you nothing.

Well, now we can enjoy the football without worrying about England. The tension is released and now we can cross our fingers and hope that the creaking bones of Maka, Zidane and crew will see them to victory. Excellent against Spain and Brazil -- teams that many had tipped for the prize -- they must surely be too good for Portugal. I am hoping so, hoping for a last big night in Berlin, a fitting end to the brilliant career of Zinedine Zidane and the group of French players who, despite their stumbles in this decade, should be remembered as some of the finest of our times.