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the grass is always greener – if you paint it

june 14, 2014

The football is getting better, no doubt about that. The Netherlands looked good, but was it a display exaggerated by Spain’s futility? Still too early to read into the results.

In today’s shocking World Cup news: they’re painting the grass to make it look green for the England-Italy match.

I saw this John Oliver video about FIFA and it’s spot on. I want to laugh and laugh at it, but clearly the joke is on Brazilians.


a few predictions

june 12, 2014

Here are some early guesses who might win the World Cup –

Nate Silver at 538: Brazil

Cebecao, the psychic turtle also says Brazil

More animals

German scientists: Spain

Australian accountants: Germany

Deutsch Bank: England (!!! a.k.a., why we don’t trust banks)

Juergen Klinsmann, coach of the US National Team: Not the U.S.

So who’s the real winner here? I don’t know how yet, but it’s probably Rafa Nadal.


why i might watch the 2014 world cup

june 11, 2014

I am a tireless football-lover, so I’ll talk about it any way I can. I’ll happily trot out the psycho-cultural stereotypes to pontificate why the Dutch will lose again, ready some Kleenex (or mugs) for the Brits and their post-Empire tears, wiggle my hips to imitate wiry South American dribblers. My credentials include two World Cups and my brother who was ball boy for the German team in 1994’s opening match. But the World Cup that is starting tomorrow?


If you ask me why I was going to tune to this year’s edition in Brazil, I would say it’s because I am a consistent football fan. Now there’s an adjective to stir passions – “consistent.”

Having watched more and more football in the last couple years, and having learned more about economics, human rights issues, and international politics, I realized the sport itself – the on-field product – has shrunk into the least compelling part of the tournament.

Maybe that’s the stage this romance was always supposed to reach. For me, it started in 1986 when I was living in Hong Kong. I remember unfurling a sleeping bag at the foot of my parents’ bed so I could wake early each morning to flip on the TV. The tournament was half a world away in Mexico so I would watch with my dad while he dressed for work. That tournament was about one player: Diego Maradona. He quickly attained hero status with me. With a thrill, I thought, my tie-clad dad and this Argentine, the only one I knew, both were 5’5”. And both men had black hair – but that is definitely where the similarities ended.

In that tournament, I also remember a game of outrageous skill played between Brazil and France. I remember all the different flags and wondering why Italy wore blue. But always, Diego Diego Diego. Those baby blue and white stripes. The mediocre team around him and Maradona’s singular brilliance – which only stood out more for the contrast. I thought, some day I, too, could be 5’5”.

But that kind of devotion couldn’t last. My parents wanted their floor space back.

Since then I’ve discovered that I remember each tournament according to where I am in life, and maybe there is something to that. Sure, there is drama with goals and heroes and scapegoats – there has to be a winner every four years, after all. But something melds the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups in my mind into one thick gray personality. In terms of the football, the drama, and, most importantly (or vaguely), the feel, there’s a worn selfsameness that makes those three. So what happened?

On my side, it’s probably life-changes and increased awareness. In 2002, I had just graduated from college and was too impoverished financially and socially to transform the games into an event. I watched broadcasts on Spanish-language channels at home alone before waiting tables in the evening. In 2006, I had both of those missing cards: income and a diverse social group. The result was morning revelry at a local bar with many friends and more depressed Brits, my photo in the paper (online version), and a culminating event where we served fresh crepes and Spaghetti-O’s in martini glasses to celebrate the finalists. As an overall package, I had the most fun with the 2006 tourney.

But 2006 was also when my worldview started to broaden. I worked for the next two years interviewing political asylum seekers. I would then spend four years living and working in East Africa on human rights-focused aid projects while launching a radio show about life in Burundi. I would attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the last couple years, I pursued Master’s degrees at Columbia in journalism and international affairs. And it would not be a stretch to say those experiences have ruined the World Cup for me – yes, including my attendance at the 2010 tournament.

For that tournament, I flew down from Burundi to South Africa to watch some games with my brother and my dad. It was great – it was like old times attending sports events in Chicago. And then I realized – that’s exactly what it felt like. Crowds filling up fast food joints before the game (we went to a KFC). Stadia hunkered in urban settings like Chicago. And the corporate sponsors. Most of all, that’s what made it feel like a typical commercial mainstream sporting experience. The sponsors were the same you find anywhere, like this (with a white picket fence!):


And they mandated that only certain foods could be sold or certain brands advertised, in effect, implying that only certain fans could attend to bankroll all this glitz. So that whole part about hosting the tournament in a brand new continent? New cultures, new fans, new foods, new everything? Marketing tools, no more.

Football has become, to me, a true commodity. The harder question was who gets to consume it? And more importantly, who or what is consumed?

This is what the past few years have taught me: There are issues larger than the game but they influence the outcomes disproportionately. Economics, human rights, inequalities – these things all matter.

Greed is winning over the game’s soul, says Nick Hornby, as players, agents, gamblers, and networks see gold. Owners smash and grab revenues and bribes (No hands, remember? It’s football.). It’s about rotten institutions run by rotten men. It’s become a shady shady enterprise where articles like this Economist piece deploy business-speak to describe FIFA, the football governing body (interestingly, the article’s print edition was “Beautiful Game, Ugly Business,” but online it’s now “Ugly Politics.”) We talk about sex workers, mostly young women, preparing for the spike in demand for their services, right alongside the young men preparing for the games – as if those are the respective roles. To some, they might be. And, most of all, it’s about inertia that helps perpetuate these problems.

The game feels that way, too. It’s not that there isn’t delicious football on offer. But since the late 90’s, European football has received so much coverage, from domestic leagues and tournaments to the Champions’ League, there are few major discoveries. Sports medicine ensures we watch the same players for at least a decade, so we’ve come to know every star intimately. Some surprises like North Korea’s promising start in 2010 gloss over the fact that most of their players played abroad in Europe and in Japan. The question was no longer whether we would be dazzled by new stars and playing styles but whether those brand names would meet expectations.

In this tournament, the sporting worries are already clear: too many injured players. Fatigue after long domestic seasons – by players and fans. Scorching humid conditions. The on-field product turn out kind of bland.

But all of that ignores the mass Brazilian opposition raging against the tournament for this extravagance that only enriches sponsors. Brazilians launch protests daily, some violent, some creative. They demand education and public investment, not just international prestige.

So when the cameras zoom out to a shot of the stadium and the surrounding bustle, I’ll be looking in the corners of the cityscape, wondering what happening in those margins. Sure, I’ll watch the games and what happens on those pretty manicured fields, but my thoughts may turn elsewhere between passes. I never thought I would say this, but football may have become a bit boring.


Oh, and Argentina will win.



there should be a new word for “writer/blogger”

October 29, 2013

Here’s an illustrative case of the continuing race to the bottom for journalism. The plagiarism language is appalling, but what about the job requirement of “making lists”??

Writer/blogger ad no longer shrugs at plagiarism. (From


nobody wants to pay me for sound arguments

October 28, 2013

Every once in a while, an article really bothers me. Here’s one, an op-ed in the New York Times, about why journalists should get paid: “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

I agree that good journalism has value and people should generally get paid for their work but Kreider gets it all wrong, showing once again that you use extremely problematic reasoning and still arrive at the right conclusion. Poor logic (ha). This article is symptomatic of the problem. If you make crap arguments and deploy conventional devices, then you cheapen your value. It starts with the headline, where you make a promise to the reader about your article’s content. This one references Marx (“Unite!”) but he’s not making a Marxist argument, he’s making a capitalist one. And to win his argument, he beats on a straw bogey (“The Man,” “they,” whoever they are) that denies payment – except inconveniently, he never acknowledges that it’s editors, many of whom are former reporters, who often seek free labor. Why? Because in a capitalist system, that’s what they do: maximize their profit, lower costs – and journalism participates fully in that system. And by posting substance-less declarations like this (“get paid!”), you’re actually making things worse. The notion that money is the only true value we should attach to journalistic endeavors should strike many journalists as offensive. Kreider tries to backtrack into a distinction about valueless art and the market economy, but journalism has always toed the line as a consumable commodity. The Internet pushed the demand into overdrive, and journalism responded with outlets like Buzzfeed. Our most popular news shows are comedy shows. Don’t blame the Internet for a collective failure of imagination. These might be entertaining, but they are not art. Are we surprised the market wants to pay less?

The example of his sister is really unfortunate and sloppy but if you do want to go in that direction and apply market logic, then you would draw parallels between our broken healthcare system including unnecessary procedures and medications and news outlets trying to manufacture news.

And don’t forget how we have all made information less valuable by giving away so much of it. We blog and we tweet and we post our lives on Facebook. If you retreat from serious journalism, as the industry has done, then you-are- saying more people are capable of this work. If you really want to improve journalists’ condition, it would be more useful to redefine value or you reshape the market. The kind of journalism that is prevailing struggles to argue it is providing a public service or strengthening civil society. On the other hand, did Edward Snowden ask for payment for his revelations? What is being done to encourage that kind of journalism? Unpaid labor is a systemic issue and getting a few bucks is hardly a sufficient remedy, as Kreider suggests; the question he should have asked is how much should different kinds of articles bring in? Or, why are social workers not paid well for helping people? Frankly, I think he’s making a plea to get paid because he’s making arguments for an industry that is losing its identity.

Also, he’s kind of a conceited pig – hard to make an argument about fairness when you’re self-absorbed and sexist.


the never-ending gitmo

September 8, 2013

The Guantanamo/Fifty Shades of Grey debacle in the last couple weeks unraveled with reports in the AP and the New York Times challenging Representative Moran’s version of events. Here’s the New York Times piece:

The attorney from my previous post seems to be dead on: the book was either a joke or planted by a government agent:

“A lawyer for one of the men said that prison guards had placed a contraband copy of the book in the cell of his client, Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, only after Representative Moran’s comments appeared.”

Either way, it’s a pretty damning display of hubris and callousness on the part of prison officials. With so many eyes on Guantanamo and the attendant geopolitical and human rights concerns, you would think the people in charge would act halfway professional. How do you convince anyone fiascos like Abu Ghraib were anomalies when stuff like this keeps happening?

What I’m most interested in is how events like this redound on the current relevant context. On various social media fora, I’ve seen reams of speculative musings about America’s imminent intervention in Syria. Everything from Iraq III to oil interests to regional politics to military ineffectiveness – it seems everyone is taking a few wild swings at the truth piñata. The reality as seen from these shores, it seems, is no one really knows what the Obama administration will attempt or to what end. But alongside scattershot speculation from American sources, there is a noticeable stream of conspiracy theories from various sources, some dubious and some (shockingly) intelligent. Here are some listed on Foreign Policy magazine’s page:

I think what this points to is not that people outside the West are crazy and illogical about American intentions. Rather, I think theories like these reflect an equally appalling narrative that includes the U.S.’ admission that it orchestrated a coup in Iran or that it facilitated the use of chemical weapons in Iraq in the early 80’s – or that it is holding Muslim prisoners in legal limbo under torture-like conditions with no tenable justification for their continued detention. And for anyone who grew up in the shadow of those real conspiracies that actually happened and are still happening, their logic might lead consistently and, yes, logically, to these kinds of surreal conclusions, even if they turn out to be wrong. Because right now, who really can say with any certainty what the U.S. is trying to do with its imminent Syrian intervention or its long-term strategic plan in the Middle East?


this week’s idiocracy moment – aug. 21

august 21, 2013

Each week, I post an example that shows how we are approaching Mike Judge’s vision in his film Idiocracy. The movie shows how a society with wayward priorities, including corporatization of our government, commercial scientific research and hostility toward intellectualism, leads to an overall dumbing down of the population.

Here is this week’s moment:

In Idiocracy, water has been displaced as the life-giving liquid of choice by sports drinks, because they are filled with “electrolytes.” What are they? What do they do? Nobody knows. But as the main product of the eponymous corporation Brawndo, which bought out the Food and Drug Administration, everything from water fountains to irrigation systems (but not toilets) dispenses “Brawndo: The Thirst Mutilator!” Why is this stupid? Because water is about water – it’s about hydration and nutrients that you can’t just replace by adding electrolytes to any liquid, especially a dehydrating beverage like beer. But that hasn’t stop scientists from wasting resources and brain power to try. Next up, non-polluting gasoline!

Australian scientists brew “hydrating beer.”

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