30 September 2016

Our heroes will all grow old.

Written on 22/08/2016, posted later.

Exercising this ignored muscle to put words to paper, because for the first time in a long time I feel like I have something to say. It's a bit painful, like trying to stretch out from a cramped position that's been held for too long.

I can almost feel the rust flaking off hinges that haven't moved in too long a time.

Time.

It lends strength and vigour and all a man dare take, but eventually, demands repayment.

Today, a metaphorical torch was passed at the Olympics. Lin Dan, the super-dan of China, was ousted by a youngster 10 years his junior and sent home medal-less, and, mirrored in the gold medal match, long-time rival Lee Chong Wei was once again denied, this time not by Lin Dan himself, but by the new leading light of Chen Long.

My heart ached as I watched him stand not quite atop the podium, but in the place he has stood the last three times of competing, and watched him put on the brave face once more. 3 Olympic silver medals is no mean feat, but I dare say he would trade all of them in a heartbeat for one gold.

Sport is a microcosm of life where what is still wild about us can be allowed to run amok. And so it can be cruel, not out of malice, but because that is nature. The scores will not favour for injury or age, will not yield for dedication nor passion but will only respond to being won on the day. The record books will discard all but the winners and consign their journeys to footnotes, if they are lucky.

I grew up watching Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei ascend to their positions as the two kings of Badminton, and from there witnessed their utter dominance of the sport - they were playing in their own league of two.

I am Chinese. It was natural for me to favour Lin Dan - super dan. He was the megastar that set the world alight, the quintessential champion. There was an indomitable aura about him, one which allowed him to win everything there was to win in badminton, and multiple times for good measure. If there was someone you could wish to emulate, not just for their skill on court, but for their mental toughness, self-belief and confidence, it would be Lin Dan. He is indisputably, undeniably, the greatest player of all time that the sport has ever seen.

But, towards the latter half of their careers, it was the story of Lee Chong Wei, told through their now 37 head to head matches spanning those two illustrious careers, that ended up capturing my heart.

The yin to Lin Dan's yang, you could imagine him as the quiet studious boy in school to Lin Dan's troublemaker, and unfortunately, when they came to blows early on, Lee Chong Wei would crumple under Lin Dan even though he would have more than the measure of everyone else. None of the beatdowns were more pronounced than at the 2008 Olympic Finals, where despite being ranked World No. 2 behind Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan swept to victory. Nobody doubted that Lee Chong Wei had the physical ability to play the shots, the stamina to last, and the skill to win, but...on the day, he lost in a scoreline that barely saw him cross into double figures in either of the games they played.

A lesser player may never have been the same again after that match. But, Lee Chong Wei didn't let that break him. He went away and trained, he went away and traded sweat, blood and tears for any improvement he could find.

In the years to come, as they faced off against each other on the courts, you could see how Lee Chong Wei grew, how his game came to mature and evolve, to become more confident and assertive. He started displaying flashes of that killer edge that one could say Lin Dan was born with, and his results spoke for themselves - he won, and won, and won. Except when it really mattered. The World Championships (of which he still hasn't won), the Yonex All England, the Olympics.

The breakthrough, if one could call it that, came at the 2011 Yonex All England championships. Where, having taken it the previous year in an unconvincing performance against Japan's Kenichi Tago (a victory, yes - but to prove you are the best, you have to prove yourself against the best) Lee Chong Wei again faced up to Lin Dan. This time though, he prevailed in straight sets over his arch rival. Was the tide finally about to turn?

The hallmark of a great champion is how they can handle their losses, and how they can use this energy to come back stronger, and so it was with Lin Dan. So when they met in the subsequent tournaments - the World Championships, the Yonex All England's, it was again Lin Dan who came out on top. At the time, watching the pair of them play, with the scorelines always so close, it seemed like they were so well matched that the winner could have been decided by a coin flip. But, such was the magic of Lin Dan that in the end, those coin flips always went his way.

The 2012 Olympics came, and with their aging, many presumed this was the last chance for both men to show their best. Lin Dan would strive to win the gold again - to defend a gold was a feat no player had achieved before. Lee Chong Wei would strive to win his first gold. So they progressed through the tournaments, duly crushing all opponents before them, to meet in the finals.

It was a delirious match. Watching two artisans of their craft, at the peak of their respective powers, trading blow for blow and giving their all is a thing of awe and beauty. It was a match of three simultaneous contests: the physical - who could dance across the court better than the other? Smash harder? Hit the lines more often? The mental - who could outsmart the other? Who could put together the strategy, the sequence of shots to give themselves the opportunity to strike the killing blow? And finally, the willpower - who was able to cling on, to give more, to believe and not falter?

In the first two, they were perfectly matched. It was like watching two gladiators trading blows in the coliseum, whilst simultaneously playing chess. Such is the beauty and intrigue of top level badminton. They naturally went one game apiece. The score line in the 3rd stayed close, the screw of tension relentlessly being tightened. Lee Chong Wei kept his nerve, and played himself ahead 19-18 at the end of the 3rd. Was this to be his time? Here, in these final two points, he could earn his country glory, silence every single critic, collect the dues that he had paid with his life so far, but, perhaps most importantly, he would be able to prove he was the very best, by proving himself against the very best.

He served 19-18. Lin Dan lifted. Lee Chong Wei tracked the shuttle and let it drop. On the line. I can only speculate as to what he was thinking at the time, but, I had been in exactly the same situation in the match of my life two years prior. At that moment, I was tracking the shuttle and left it as much in the hope of it going out, as knowing it really was out.

19-19.

With Lin Dan serving, Lee Chong Wei was quickly put on the defensive. He returned a smash, then two, then three, but could not find a way back in the rally.

19-20. The final point.

The rally went long, an agonisingly tense back and forth. Nervy. Nobody committed fully to the attack in fear of leaving themselves open. Finally though, Lee Chong Wei was again the first to crack. He lifted the shuttle long. The gold medal again slipping out of his grasp.

At this point, the badminton community was widely convinced that this would be the last Olympics for these two men. That, by Rio 2016, they would be too old to keep up with the youngsters on the block.

Such was their skill though, and the gap they had over everyone else, that they both kept playing at the highest of levels for the next four years. They both continued to win, but slowly, ever so slowly, chinks began to appear in their impenetrable armour. Lee Chong Wei played himself into a few more World Championship finals, but didn't manage to win any of them. There were rumours they would retire before 2016, and going into 2016, it was clear for all to see that Lin Dan wasn't on top form.

But Lee Chong Wei, ever the hard worker, the meek boy with head down studying, was shining brightly, nearly clean sweeping the tournaments he entered before the Olympics, barring a disastrous first round exit at the Yonex All England. The talk began again - mentally weak, easily chokes, not a winner.

Then, Rio. It seemed a cruel twist of the seeding tables that they would be seeded to meet each other in the semi finals and not the finals - but perhaps also a sign. They were both old by Badminton standards - 5 or 6 years past what was considered the prime. Were they both up to the challenge?

For the Olympics, of course they were. And so they duly met each other again.

This was now more a match of wiles - they did not have the same reserves of stamina and strength to call upon as their younger days, but again it went the distance. Two old grandmasters putting on one final show for the world. This time, it was Lee Chong Wei who triumphed.

It was not just the triumph itself that spoke to me though. It was the manner of it. Towards the end of the 3rd game, the score lines became tight again, and again Lee Chong Wei had the lead. Going into the final few points, we saw again the "never say die" champion of Lin Dan emerge - he urged his body into upping its speed again, throwing everything he had left at Lee Chong Wei. But, unlike so many times before, this time Lee Chong Wei stood and weathered the storm, and with a steady hand eked out the final points he needed for victory. This was a man who had finally conquered himself, and so in the process, conquered his opponent.

Perhaps it was the intensity of this game that led him to lose against Chen Long in the finals and take home another silver, and, I'm sure he will be disappointed. But, perhaps in his heart of hearts, and, at least in my heart, I think that he won the match that mattered.

History will place the two of them side by side and judge Lin Dan numerically the better, and I don't disagree. Sport can be cruel like that. But sport can also be beautiful, and this was perhaps one of the most beautiful tales in sport, told through a score of years of a mutual friendship, a respectful rivalry, and of a man who would not give up, and in the end, mastered himself.

At the start of this post, I wanted to write to lament the passing of time. The fact that it will forget. That all this will be washed away like sandcastles by the sea. That our heroes will all grow old such that they cannot perform the heroics we admire them for anymore. Neither Lin Dan nor Lee Chong Wei will most likely play another Olympics again. Lee Chong Wei will most likely never win the gold.

But maybe that's okay. Time may pass, but Lee Chong Wei showed us that it is always the time to try your best, and as we go about our day to day battling our own fears and doubts, engaging in our own matches against life, we may remember that although he didn't get the prize that many think he deserved, in the end he won the battle that he needed to win.

Perhaps that is the more important thing.


2 October 2015

Matters of the Heart

Two days ago, at 9:58 in the morning, I stood just outside the security gates at Heathrow Terminal 5. She walked away from me, her face wet with tears. "I love you too," she said, before scanning her ticket and then walked through the barriers beyond which I could not go.

She looked back once, before disappearing behind frosted glass, possibly forever out of my sight.

I didn't know what to do next. I stood clutching the small brown paper bag she had given me, in it a final letter and some parting gifts, and cast around like a lost dog. Maybe a part of me was waiting for her to come back through those gates. For what though? One final hug? A teary eyed reconciliation? I don't know.

Two days ago, my girlfriend of two years and I broke up.

Yesterday, after leaving work, I got on the tube to go home. I was supposed to change off the Victoria line at Warren Street, but, for the last two weeks, I had been living with her in a flat at Blackhorse Road. So, out of habit I suppose, I stayed on the line until Finsbury Park, 4 stops further than I was supposed to, where I realised my mistake, inviting the pain to assault me afresh.

Breaking up isn't easy, and whilst I can't consider this my first break up, I strongly suspect in the due course of time I will consider this the worst.

Her ghost haunts me through the days, and the lack of her by my side makes it hard to sleep at night. Everything reminds me of her. I walk to work, and past Russell & Bromley, where I once bought her a pair of heels, on the streets near Oxford Circus, where we have trodden over so many times before hand in hand. I walk into the office and past the Foosball table, where all the games we've played she has won. I go home and there is the living room of my parents house, where I first told her I loved her. The shower, where we first showered together. My small single bed, where we spent happy nights nuzzled together in a pile.

It comes in waves, and I feel like I'm always struggling to stay afloat. Just when I feel stable, like I've caught a breath, I'll remember something, see something, smell something and the memories will come crashing down on me so powerfully that I have to stop what I am doing and struggle through it.

We haven't talked since she arrived in Beijing and let me know she had arrived safely.

It's only been two days, yet I desperately want to get in touch with her, but all the words I want to say to her are just words that will make it hurt more for the both of us. "I miss you." "I love you." "I want to hold you." So, I stop myself. It's funny how quickly things change. Just last week, this would have been a routine thing, but then, just last week she was still my girlfriend.

I wonder how she is, if she's struggling just as much as me. There was no acrimony in our break up, so I can only guess that she feels as bad as me, which makes me hurt all the more.

We ended it for good reasons, or so we think. It was perhaps the best possible break-up, the most amicable break-up that two people who still so obviously love each other could have had, and, we both knew it was coming, so it wasn't like we weren't prepared. But, that was a source of pain in itself.

Just as at the start of our relationship, I eagerly counted all the firsts - the first date, the first hand holding, the first kiss, the first "I love you's", the first holiday,  the first birthday, the first anniversary...towards the end, my mind was ineluctably drawn to the lasts. Our last holiday, the last time we cooked together, the last time of making love, the last night sleeping together, the last time holding her, the last kiss, the last words, the last time seeing her face.

In some ways, I suppose there is a relief in it being over - the relentless assault of "lasts" is over. The page has been flipped, and all I must do now is focus on writing this new chapter with as much grace and dignity as I can muster. But, I still feel like we had so much more to share together, so much joy to experience together, more arguments to be had, more laughter, more of everything. I feel like I had so much left to give to her, and now there is nothing.

But, I suppose this is life. The pain of this heartbreak lets me know how much I cared, lets me know just how blessed I was to have her in my life for as long as I did, it lets me know that I'm very much alive. Without this pain, how would you know to cherish joy?

Today, I changed at Warren Street as I had planned. I didn't want to though. I wanted to be able to ride it all the way to Blackhorse Road, to walk up those streets, past Hookers Lane (we always joked about that), past the makers yard, into the block of flats, up the lift to the 3rd floor and knock on number 46, and find her waiting there.

One step at a time, I suppose. One step at a time.

30 September 2015

9 May 2015

Can we share the pie better please?

I turned 26 recently - less than a week ago in fact.

It's a significant age because now, no matter how I try to pervert mathematics, there is no getting around the fact that I am closer to 30 than 20, and so, perhaps in recognition (or resignation) that I'm well on my way to being an Adult(tm), I decided to get involved and vote in the general election this year.

Naturally, It wouldn't be enough to pick at random from the four selections I would have (I say four, because to a 2nd generation immigrant UKIP is as much of a choice as eating dirt is, but I digress), I would have to do a bit of research to understand what all this political hoo-ha was all about.

I discovered many things during this research - for instance - that my political beliefs align quite left of the spectrum, with a fairly liberal outlook (you can figure yours out here if interested: https://www.politicalcompass.org/test), but really what I felt most strongly about out of all the myriad of topics involved in the socio-political landscape of our modern society is income inequality.

By whichever metric you want to measure it, we are very unequal. I provide just one example (from this illuminating series of graphs on The Atlantic).

To summarise: One line is a lot steeper than the others. This is bad.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that inequality in itself is bad. I understand we live in a capitalist system; an economic system where wealth creation is founded on the principle that by making the pie bigger, everyone gets a bigger share and that incentives in the form of possible massive wealth are required for people to take the requisite risks in innovating, setting up businesses and doing all the other good shizzle that have provided our society with all of the amenities that we enjoy today. However, not all inequality is equal.

On a side note - the capitalist system seems to be right now the best economic system we've implemented to date, however, it won't be the last. The capitalist system is founded on the assumption that growth can be sustained infinitely. This is obviously ridiculous, but I believe that it's not really something we as a society have had to contend with up till now. Earth is a finite resource. This by definition means that capitalism is not going to be a suitable economic system for the end-state - where presumably we will be exploiting all of Earth's resources, but doing so in a sustainable way (because there is no other way to do so and ensure the continued survival of the human race).

I'm not here to lay out the "how did we get here's" or to debate about the "how can we fix this", because I am not educated enough to know the history, and not knowledgeable enough to come up with any credible solutions.

But in the light of the election results in the UK, it seems that we are going to continue down the road where we've come from, which makes me think that the graphs above are not going to get better anytime soon, and I think that's super bad. It makes me wonder whether I'm missing something, or whether other people are missing something. 

Sure, keeping the NHS free is all well and good, and trying to aid people in buying homes is also great, but I can't help but feel that ultimately these problems are partly caused by the fact that inequality has grown so large - if perhaps not so much money was tied up in the financial markets and stock portfolios and instead being paid to the people in salary, wouldn't we all spend more as a result, fuelling a virtuous cycle in the economy?

I didn't want this post to get too serious so here is a picture of a puppy and a kitten.

More income means more tax pounds - a source of funding for the NHS perhaps? More income might also make it more palatable to cut the benefits system too. More income might help people get on the housing ladder and finally, more income would allow us all to participate in society more fully. Culture costs money. Art costs money. Having more money means more of both.

More than the monetary aspect though, I think there's another important reason why the amount of inequality we see today is bad.

The part of me that is jealous of the fact that I'm not a multi-million net worth individual would argue that well - I work hard at my job, as do many other people, is it really fair that the compensation levels should differ so much even though no less effort is being expended? Although this visceral reaction probably echoes many people's, it is hardly a convincing argument. 

No. The real reason comes from a more pragmatic perspective.

In a society like ours, there will always be inequality. It is ingrained in the system and necessary for the system to function. However, the aspirational culture we all participate in let us all think that we'll be in a position to reach the stars when this is perhaps the very opposite of the truth. We turn a blind eye to the fact that even if there were perfect social mobility, we would still be arranged in a pyramid structure much like we are now. Some people would be at the metaphorical "top" - the CEOs, the entrepreneurs and so forth, others would be in the middle class and we would still have to have people doing the low skilled jobs at the bottom.

The problem really is that we think of it as a "top" or a "bottom" at all. All are necessary for the functioning of this society, and as sad as it may to be admit, it might not be wrong to say that the reason we value a CEO (in terms of pay) much more than a janitor is simply because he will have a much bigger impact on a shareholder's expected earnings. But, unfortunately, more than that, because really monetary value is representative of just "value", when we pay minimum wage to a cleaner such that they are not able to participate as much as they would like in society, we are not only facilitating a wealth of economic problems, but also telling them that they are "just" a cleaner. What CEO would think of themselves in all seriousness as "just" the CEO? 

As the recent tube strike showed, just because we take something for granted doesn't mean it's not important, and just because we can all do a job it doesn't render it without value - because - well, it still needs to be done.

Second picture break! This is how I eat a bacon sandwich too. Problem?
I want to close out by using an analogy from the days of my yore, when I used to be heavily into video games. Back in the days of World of Warcraft, we would get together, a bunch of people 40 strong, to try and slay dragons (and other ghastly world threatening entities). In that group, two of the most prestigious positions were the main tank and the main healer, why? If the main tank (who held the dragon's attention and took the brunt of the dragon's ire) died, then it was a given that the attempt would probably fail. If the main healer died, the main tank would probably die as a result. 

So, raids far and wide recruited for the best, most talented players they could find to fill these spots, even though measuring the performance between one tank/healer or the other was sometimes a fairly subjective thing. The rest of the riff-raff, the damage dealers, were pretty much interchangeable. Do you stab the dragon with a dagger or fire arrows or frost-bolts at it? Whatever, it doesn't matter, just do your thing (but don't stand in the fire).

My own raiding guild followed this philosophy too, and, you know, we made a pretty good raid. For a long time we were the 2nd best on our server (and then even the first best for a time too!). But, what kept us from reaching the big leagues, from becoming great? The answer, it turned out in the end, was the quality of our damage dealers. 

Although individually the job they did was not flashy or noticeable - and there was no immediate visible feedback for their efforts (such as the tank living or dying), the small accumulation of improvements to each of their damage outputs in the end yielded a big difference. 

It was the difference between taking 10 minutes to kill a dragon versus 5 minutes, mitigating 5 minutes worth of risk for the raid - 5 minutes of the main tank being bitten and clawed at, 5 minutes of the main healer concentrating without blinking on each sudden movement in the health of the main tank, 5 minutes of the raid having to avoid the fire. 

It was what turned a good raid into a great raid.

We have in our society now, a good raid. 

We have strong corporations who make great products and a robust government. They are the ones in the news and the spotlights, the main tanks and the main healers. We of course want the best, and so we are paying out of our noses for the best of the 1%. However though, this means the people who crank the handles of industry, the damage dealers, are not being empowered enough. 

So maybe, just maybe, if we focused a little more on giving more attention to the people and a little less to the top, we could turn a good raid into a better one. We could turn a good society into a better one.

27 January 2015

A good morning indeed.

I stepped out of the tube station into the chill morning air.

A man giving away TimeOut magazines stepped forward from where he was waiting on the edge of the pavement for the latest batch of commuters to shuffle out of the underground.

He was not like the others - blank faces and bored eyes. Perhaps he was new on the job, not yet dulled by the dull affair of peddling his wares.

"Good morning!" He exclaimed, words as cheery as his smile. "Time Out magazine anyone?"

I didn't take one, and neither was I in a bad mood in need of cheering up, but cheer me up he did.

I hope he realises that for that moment, in that instant, he wasn't just handing out magazines. Keep it up, TimeOut man.

30 October 2014

My Journey of Fitness

Recently, over the last year or so (especially over the last 6 months), I've had quite a few people comment on my physical appearance.

"You've lost weight." Is a common one.
"Have you been going to the gym?" Is another.
"You look in great shape." An oft heard third.

I wanted to highlight this not for the sake of my own vanity (although, clearly I'm not opposed to getting these sorts of comments), but for a rather different reason. It would seem, then, that I have arrived at the destination of being "fit", as nebulous a term as it is.

Certainly, my own self three or four years prior would have thought so. He would have looked in the mirror at my physique now and would have been consumed with jealousy and longing. A goal to attain, something to "get", an achievement to tick off on the list of things to do in life; "get fit". Concerned only with the external, the image, the representation. Knowing perhaps, but ignoring, that the really the important things to get right were the things on the inside - the substance.

Looking back now from where I stand today, with the knowledge attained from consistent effort applied over the years, I realise how hopelessly naive I was back then. There is no end goal here, there is no summit to the mountain. We are not even climbing a mountain in the first place. The journey of fitness is not so much a physical progression as a spiritual one and being fit is not an achievement, it is a state of being. The real benefits are not the hard abs and defined pecs, it is the hardening of discipline and the definition of character.

Of course, the visual progression is the easiest to see. So let's lay that out below and get it out of the way.

2006 me.
2011 me.
2014 me.

I am of course pleased with the physical transformation from a skinny-fat kid to a fairly "fit" guy. And, I won't lie that of course aesthetics was part of the reason I hopped on the fitness bandwagon all those years ago, and it is part of the reason why I continue to train regularly today. But I want to put it to one side for now, because I really want to talk about the other things - the change of the internal me, which as a progression has mirrored the external changes (but has probably been even more drastic).

I used to hold some very strict beliefs about myself - some of them very negative. One of those beliefs was that no matter what I tried, I would always be quite chubby. Because, back then, I was playing Badminton for Devon County. I was playing 2-3 hours four or more times a week. How could I be doing that much exercise and yet still be chubby? Along with this was also the belief that I was unattractive, and I don't mean on a physical level, I mean that on a deep fundamental level, I believed I was somehow flawed as a person and different (in an inferior way). The worst belief though by far I held was that these things were innate - they were an inextricable part of my being, unchangeable, immutable. It was who I was.

It's interesting thinking back now to the person I was then, and seeing how trapped I was by my these beliefs. And, even through a fair portion of University, I was never really fully secure in myself. I was the guy in the group who laughed along with the jokes, who pandered to everyone's wishes, the serial pleaser who was too scared to stand out and show his own personality - but not just because I was scared, but also because partly I didn't even know what that personality really was because I was too busy spending most of my energy trying just to fit in.

The one area I was consistently good at though was academics. And again it's funny now thinking back. I wonder how much of that success was due to my actual intelligence and how much of it was due to my own self-held belief that I was intelligent, which therefore engendered behaviours that led me to become what I believed I was. After a certain point, should we even try to distinguish them? Fake it till you make it, right?

It's odd though that I never made the connection at that time that I could apply that to the rest of my life.

So, I muddled through Uni, until I arrived in my final year, preparing for Badminton Varsity.

I was the Captain of the team, and I had long ago decided I was going to give it my all to try and bring the trophy home for Cambridge. I even started going to the gym, doing a whole bunch of random exercises with really little idea of what I was about. But, I had a big motivation, which kept me consistent, and I began to notice slight changes.

I was then lucky to be introduced to www.stronglifts.com, and decided to give it a shot. And it changed my life.

I stepped into the gym (Selwyn College's gym - a bare-bones garage with old school solid iron plates and equipment that the paint was peeling off of) on those first workouts, squatting about 40 kg, bench pressing 30 kg and I forget my other stats. The program seemed a little bit crazy to me at the time - add 2.5 kg each workout and keep going, but, I followed it, placing my faith in the testimonials on the internet and also the glimmer of hope in my heart that I could emulate some of the success stories there.

It is difficult to describe the feeling of those first few months. 

Every workout I went in and I added 2.5kg to the bar. Soon, weights that were previously unmanageable became liftable, and then after not much more time, comfortable.

After two weeks, I could already feel a change in myself. After a month, that change was obvious in the mirror. It was like I had discovered a new source of power in my body, and with each workout I was opening the taps. It was addictive, a completely heady feeling. I felt at that point so in control of my own destiny. 

And that was when it hit me - that the limiting belief I had held all my life as fact - that I could never get fit - was in fact nothing but a belief. It forced me to re-examine everything, because if I was proving to myself week after week that I could surpass my previous limit, that I could change this previously immutable aspect of myself, then what else could I change, given the right motivation and approach?

The answer, over the next few years, turned out to be a lot.

I now go to the gym about four times a week in the mornings before work. It's become my panacea, a keystone habit that helps me define myself, keep perspective and de-stress.

I firmly believe we are not a species meant for sitting in office chairs for 8-10 hours a day. Not so long ago we were nomadic hunters on the great plains of Africa, where our preferred method of hunting was to exhaust our prey to death. Society has come a long way since then, but evolutionarily speaking nothing much has changed.

Back then, mother nature was the personal trainer - you hunted, you ran, you exerted yourself - because if you didn't, you didn't eat. Now though, there is no natural pressure, and so in this society of over-abundance we grow fat and lazy and develop bad posture and even worse vices. I firmly believe that this is not a sustainable way to live.

So we should be the mother nature to ourselves, and use our rational thinking to set our animal self the challenges it needs. To reconnect with the glorious physicality that has now been lost from so much of our lives, to restore the balance.

Fitness is not an end goal. It is a journey, a state of being, and for me, it was the cornerstone upon which I changed my life for the better. It led me to understand who I really was, tested the limits of my discipline, my willpower and my character and helped me understand where I was in relation to the man that I wanted to be. It showed me (and continues to show me) that every reward has to be earned, that every achievement comes as the result of consistent hard work. There are no cutting corners in this arena. No shortcuts. If I don't achieve a goal, there is no one else to blame but me. You can make excuse after excuse, but at the end of the day if you can't lift that barbell then you can't lift it.

I used to feel that I was owed certain things by the world - a satisfying career, a loving girlfriend, a comfortable life, just by merely existing. Writing this out makes me cringe. The world doesn't owe me anything, only existence. Nobody else is going to make me into the man I want to be. Everything is up to me. Of course, everybody "knows" this. Just as everybody "knows" how terrible it must feel to lose a family member. But there's knowing - the hazy, slightly abstracted theory. And there's knowing - the concrete, irrevocable knowledge that sits in your bones. They are not the same.

If you're out there, and you feel like how I felt all those years ago. Maybe what you need isn't alcohol, or cigarettes, or porn or whatever else you use to numb the pain and hide from the doubt. Maybe what you need is the iron.

13 February 2012

Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2



*Spoiler Warning - You have been warned!*


If you've been any sort of Final Fantasy, or hell, gaming fan over the last few years, you'll probably be aware of the furore that was made over the release of Final Fantasy XIII. It was like Square Enix omni-slashed down the middle of the Final Fantasy fanbase with the introduction of new battle mechanics and the much more story focused gameplay. Also, if you've been any sort of Final Fantasy fan, you'll probably have your own opinion on whether the changes worked or not.

For me, it was a partial success. I loved the new battle mechanics; the quick pace and the paradigm shifts which gave it a nice layer of depth and also a new urgency and visual flair which the older games lacked. I also liked the difficulty (towards the latter stages of the game); the game forced the player to have a good grasp of the mechanics to succeed, which was nice. Where the game fell down though, was its mind numbing linearity through the first half. In a game, even in a Final Fantasy, gameplay should still be king, and clearly when all a player has to do is run down a corridor and press X, this is not the case.

I do realise what Square-Enix were trying to do; they were trying to tell a character focused story, and for people who connected with the characters and their struggles, I imagine it would have been a much more fun ride, but personally, I found much of the dialogue and interactions forced and a little bit hokey. It wasn't that the voice work was of poor quality (it was good, although I wish Vanille could have been less ear achingly high pitched), it was just something about the character dynamics that betrayed too much of the authorial hand behind it; things didn't feel like they flowed naturally.

So, by the genre defining standards that Final Fantasies usually set, it was a bit of a mixed bag, and after I finished the game I put down the controller with as much of a feeling that I'd endured a trial as the feeling you get when you close a good book.

Anyhow, fast forward to the sequel; only the second time that the main franchise has received a direct continuation. I've now sank about 55 hours into the game, and am on the verge of completing the post game (just need that damn slot machine to pay out...), so you can rest assured my opinions are not formed from a half assed toe dip into the world of Pulse and Cocoon. Nope. I've wound the game around myself like a noose, and have pretty much devoted the last week and a bit of my life to it.

So, the story in a nutshell is a bit of a deviation from the first game. Lightning gets sucked into the Unseen realm, into Valhalla, where she is now locked in an endless war with the game's antagonist, whose goals are of course, the destruction of life, the universe and everything. Whilst this is going on, Noel, a boy from the future is tasked by Lightning to bring Serah to her, and along the way, they must fix a world history that left to itself would result in the doom of the human race. So far so good; it wouldn't quite be a Final Fantasy if the fate of everyone and their chocobos weren't at stake.

The game's protagonists
I was initially a bit hesitant about the fact that I would be stuck with only Serah and Noel to play. Serah, from what little of her is present in the first game, struck me as a fairly weak girly-girl, and Noel, well, he dressed funny. However, with less characters to the main cast, it seems the writers were able to really pin them and their interactions down well, and for the most part it really worked for me. Serah's growth from a  somewhat helpless civilian into a hero is quite a touching tale, and Noel, although he doesn't have such a dramatic arc, falls squarely into the "slightly cocky but very likeable guy" category the same way that Snow doesn't, and his relationship with Caius and Yeul provides for some great drama at the climax. There were of course a few awkward moments where the writers had no choice but to use the characters as talking heads to deliver exposition to the player, and some of the body animation (and some lip-synching on the side quests), were clearly rushed when translated from the Japanese version, however, it detracts very little from the whole experience.

The effect of the time travelling storyline on gameplay essentially means that all linearity has gone flying out of the window, as the player is given a good amount of choice about where to go and what to do very early on in the game. There are a plethora of sidequests and distractions for those who want to explore and take a break from the main quest., and although a lot of them are fairly standard fetch or kill quests, the slightly tweaked battle system (which is now even better) makes them fun. The ill effects of making the game so non-linear is that although I was never stuck on where to go next, fitting all the pieces of the plot puzzle together was a fairly arduous task, not aided by the fact that the writers saved all the important reveals until nearly the final act. This made the character motivations seem a little murky for much of the game, and put a damper on what in hindsight was a very character driven story which was also surprisingly dark for a Final Fantasy. I don't think there has been another major villain in the series who had as much humanity as Caius Ballad, and yet he still managed to be a great villain and provides a thrilling final boss fight along with a great theme, and this is something that for me bodes well for any future installments in the series.

Lightning's badass new outfit. Feather half skirts are apparently considered timeless fashion in Valhalla.
Characters from the previous installment all have an encore, albeit very briefly for some, although their reasons for also travelling time is disappointingly not explained in the game. and if rumours are true, are things that we will have to play DLC for to find out. Speaking of DLC, the whole "To Be Continued" ending really infuriated me to be honest, because I'm sure I speak for many when I say that one of the prime draws of a Final Fantasy game is an awesome story. An awesome story that finishes. It's what I pay the RRP for, and so SE's decision to leave us all dangling on what felt like a cliffhanger to me, is a huge let down. It wasn't as if they had too much story to fit into one game; the main quest was only 25 to 30 hours long, some 10 to 15 hours short of some of the other games in the series, and there was a perfect opportunity to wrap it up neatly, or even turn Serah's death into a bit of a Aerith moment and continue the game to the story's true conclusion without her. But no. Square Enix clearly were thinking of the money here, and not the art, and it puts a huge shadow over the game, and also where they are headed as a company. Are we in the not so distant future going to be purchasing Final Fantasy XV in episodes a la Half Life 2? I sure hope not.

I think had they told the story to it's conclusion, it would have made this a truly great Final Fantasy. All the other elements were there; sympathetic characters, a satisfying and interesting post game, chocobo racing, a few super bosses (which were actually far too easy) and that mysterious Final Fantasy fun factor which just didn't seem to be present in XIII.

It also had a much better realised and cohesive soundtrack than FFXIII, and I found it both refreshing and enjoyable, albeit a departure from what Uematsu would have done. I think the music for FFXIII was a little bit all over the place, and although Hamauzu did his best to provide a cohesive soundtrack, he went about it a little too bluntly, weaving too few themes into too many tracks. It isn't so in the sequel, which musically, has developed a great deal; there is a huge variety of styles present, from jazzy battle tunes to a heavy metal chocobo theme which had me chuckling, and a lot more vocal tracks than previously. I feel most of it works really well, and although it won't be what Uematsu fans would expect from a "classic" FF soundtrack, it is a good evolution in my books. I do wish that the main Final Fantasy theme and the Prelude would have been included in all their glory however, as for me they are like the musical stamp that says "Here. This is a Final Fantasy."

For all its good points however, there are a few things which disappointed me a bit about the game, story conclusion aside. Although the concept of time travel was great, I feel like the team didn't flesh out the way the world would change over the years as much as they could have, so in some ways it was difficult to feel the effects of the passage of time, as for example, Bresha Ruins in the year 300 was pretty much the same as it was 200 years previously, except for the weather. Would there not be collapsed tunnels or plant growth or any number of things that would signify the passage of time? Also, the use of the Historia Crux, which is basically a glorified menu, along with the lack of a world map, really stamped out any feeling of "place". This might seem like a minor issue to some, but it bothers me greatly, because one of the trademarks for Final Fantasy games was the character the setting provided; Spira is different from Vana'diel, is different from the world of FFVII, is different from...well, you get where I'm going with this. For XIII and XIII-2, we have the beautiful locations of Pulse and Cocoon, but rarely do we get any sense of where the story events take place in the world in relation to each other. There's no sense of any sort of journey; it's just clicking through a list of menus. Bring back the world map please.

Oh, and there's no summonable Eidolons, which makes me sadface. But anyway....

All things considered; as a game, XIII-2 is a fine game. It's one of the few Final Fantasies which I have genuinely enjoyed the post-game in and it's just a really fun experience, which is probably the most important thing (although very much on the easy side). As a Final Fantasy, it addresses a lot of the issues that I had with XIII, and is a respectable addition to the series. However, it could have been so much more, and I think the amount of wasted potential, more than anything else, makes the shortcomings in the title more disappointing than they otherwise might have been.

If you hated XIII because of the linearity, the storyline or the characters, give XIII-2 a try. It's definitely a step up. If you hated XIII because of the battle mechanics, then you should probably get your kicks elsewhere; not a lot has changed.

Final Verdict: 7 / 10