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The most literary piece on boardgames I've ever read

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This isn't a "repost things I found on the internet" kind of blog, but sometimes I can't help myself.

This board game session report is astounding at first glance for its length, but what truly sets it apart is the fact that it is written as a literary think piece.  Yes, friends, this is one of the few times when the veil is lifted and the boardgaming hobby creates art.  I have read nothing like this in more than 10 years of gaming.

It may, perhaps, be too dense for non-boardgamers, but I hope not.  From where I'm standing, this is a "Why we play boardgames" manifesto disguised as a novella disguised as an internet post.

30 for 30: There's No Place Like Home

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Uh, yeah.  James Naismith invented basketball in Massachusetts.  Then he went to Kansas and started the basketball program, where he coached for 8 years and posted a losing record.

Fast-forward more than a hundred years, and Naismith's great grandson decides he wants to sell the original rules that Naismith typed up.  A Kansas fan hears that this is the case and makes it his personal goal that Kansas should have the rules.  Never mind that they should probably be in Springfield, where the game was actually invented, if you want to stick with historical fidelity.

The documentary may seem like its about the rules, but this is more about the farce that unchecked fandom can become.  Basically, it's amazing to see this fan just believe so strongly in this.  I mean, really, this guy invents a cause which he believes will mystically bring success to his team (or at least strongly implies it).  Then, he decides that, even when the school doesn't really seem to want them, he's going to do an end run and make sure that the school gets them for sure.

In the end, what has he accomplished?  He played on the emotions of an overly rich Kansas fan, who decides that the rules just maybe going to Duke would be a Fate Worse Than Death and that he's willing to bid, well, whatever it takes.  So a rich guy and this really dedicated, somewhat slimy-seeming guy get together and bring the rules to Kansas, where they will... sit under glass and high security for Kansas fans to pass and think about how great their program is.

I like sports, I like history, but this is just a farce.  It really shows just how ludicrously much money some people have, and how they're motivated by the same stupid crap the rest of us are, just that they have more money.  This is a few people displaying questionable judgement, and us watching them do so.  It's fascinating in that train-wreck kind of way, but it is not the earnest thing that the documentary wants it to be.

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Portlandia: Season 2

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No word describes this series more accurately than "Ouch."  As in, "Ouch, I can't believe that this humor is so accurately skewering my way of life."  I don't know if this is because I live in Minneapolis, a near analog of Portland in terms of hip, urban, bike-friendly, and currently ascendent mid-size city, or if this is just a function of 30-somethings living in American Cities right now.  Either way, I've never had a comedy show feel quite as aimed at me.  This is the feeling that others have described about shows like Seinfeld and Friends.  I finally get it (though I still don't like those other shows much).

Season 2 differs from season 1 in two big ways.  First of all, the show has clearly gotten attention, as there are a ridiculous number of cameos.  We noticed a bunch: Jeff Goldblum, Eddie Vedder, Greg Louganis, and Isaac Brock among others, and I'm sure there are many more that we missed.  Sometimes, the celebrity is recognized and worked into the plot, and other times the celeb just plays a bit part, but it never feels forced, like that one time that Troy Aikman showed up on Coach

The other defining piece of season 2 is an embracing of surreality.  Season 1 is finely honed satire, but I don't recall surreality ever breaking the bounds of satire.  That changes in season 2.  The show is treading on thin ice, as surreality can sometimes fail horribly, as Family Guy often proves.  But its done lightly and infrequently enough here, usually as a scene end or an interstitial short.  It works well.

If you're reading the blog, you should see this series.  If nothing else, you can make fun of me.

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30 for 30: Ghosts of Ole Miss

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This movie is an identity piece, on what it means to be a white Southerner.  This iteration specifically focuses on the year of 1962, when the University of Mississippi football team went undefeated, but more importantly, when it was forced to integrate.

I didn't know much about the integration story of Ole Miss. It was vaguely familiar, but it was always overshadowed in my mind by the earlier, though less violent, school integration in Little Rock.  For that reason alone, I'm glad I watched this movie.

The chronicle of the history is mostly well done.  

The story is written by and narrated by Wright Thompson, a sportswriter from Mississippi.  The main theme of the movie is Thompson confronting Mississippi's ugly past, and trying to find a line between taking pride in his heritage and not being racist.  There's struggle with accountability, such as whether we should try to hold those responsible for the riots accountable (yes, obviously), and how a culture scarred by prior insensitive behavior should move on.

Though it's clearly thought out, it comes across as mealy-mouthed.  Thompson grasps that the confederate flag is offensive, for instance, and doesn't make too much of a fuss about the loss of the Colonel Reb mascot, but he is less certain about the song Dixie.  This is classic Southern want-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude, the same stuff that leads to the offensive lost cause Civil War ideology.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  The Confederacy was racist.  Economically, the South was dependent on slave labor, and was willing to come to arms rather than give up that system.  The states rights argument is very clearly flawed, as the Constitution of the Confederacy was identical to that of the Union, but for one clause that explicitly allowed slavery.  That, folks, is a one-issue war, about the subjugation of blacks by whites.

By extension, any symbol that is primarily a symbol of the Confederacy is racist.  That this isn't accepted is shameful.  Our culture understands that the hateful symbols of, say, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany are offensive, but the symbols of the Civil War South are allowed to remain, in the name of some sort of back-asswards tolerance.

The movie is well-made, and there's clearly thought here, but I just can't excuse what is still a flawed premise: That there's value in the cultural heritage and symbolism of the Confederate States of America.

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30 for 30: 9.79*

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Once upon a time, there was a very fast Canadian man.  That Canadian man won a gold medal in the 100m in Seoul in 1988.  Then it was revealed that he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, and his medal was taken away.

The documentary does its homework.  Not only does it feature interviews with Johnson and most of his cohort in the Seoul final, but it's also tracked down trainers, testers, and commentators of the era.  Everyone in this scandal who is still living is interviewed here, and several of the dead ones are represented in archival footage, quotes, and photos.

Ben Johnson's 1988 medal race occupies a very prominent place in the discussion of steroids and sport.  I'm not really sure why this is.  Perhaps this was the first famous athelete from an English-speaking nation to get caught?  Now, after Lyle Alzadothe baseball senate hearings, and Lance Armstrong, it doesn't seem to have the same kind of impact that it did then.  Now it feels like one in a long line of steroid scandals, and not particularly exceptional.

Perhaps because of this perspective, it's easy to sympathize with Johnson.  Protestations that everybody was taking the stuff seem much more valid.  Carl Lewis, the American who was elevated to gold after Johnson was disqualified, comes across (accurately, from my understanding) as self-aggrandizing and untrustworthy.  There's juicy stories about Lewis' camp contaminating the test results, incriminating-sounding quotes, and allegations by other runners about Lewis.

Clearly, there's fishy stuff that went on all over the sport.  Johnson participated in it, and he got caught.  Does the fact that the corruption seemed to be sport-wide mean that we should take it easier on Johnson?  That argument for Johnson is very similar to the argument for Lance Armstrong in cycling, and I have never been able to buy it in Armstrong's case.  That could be my own biases against Armstrong, or it could be because Johnson doesn't have the ruthlessness or the strident denial characteristic of Armstrong.

In a story as complex as this one, this documentary does a very good job of staying even-handed.  Highly recommended.

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Breaking Bad: Season 2

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Season 2 of Breaking Bad mostly continues in the vein of season 1.  It continues to be a well-shot, well-written gift of a series.  It's particularly interesting watching it in such close proximity to The Wire.  While the Wire takes a top-down approach to crime storytelling, talking about the systemic nature, Breaking Bad takes a very micro approach, showing one small set of characters and describing how they build the drug trade.

Season 2 continues our slide toward hating everybody and showing everybody's insecurities.  Hank and Skyler both are getting significantly more developed, and the introduction of Jane to the series also brings in another character to watch making poor choices.

I'm not sure how this series is going to keep going for another three years.  I already feel like I'm in act 4 of a Shakespearean tragedy, with only the very short act 5 left when everybody dies friendless and alone.  It feels like Walter could get picked up tomorrow and the whole series would fold.

This season did make a couple choices which I wasn't thrilled about. but by and large this is still a very, very good series.  It will probably be the best TV I watch this year.

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30 for 30: The Dotted Line

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30 for 30 brings on one of the heavy hitters with The Dotted Line in Morgan Spurlock, he of Super Size Me.  Spurlock here takes on the world of sports agents.

It shows that Spurlock has a lot of documentary making under his belt, as this is one of the most polished entries in the 30 for 30 series.  It's particularly interesting in light of the documentary 2 Days in April, which I recently watched and reviewed.  After all, much of the movie follows a young agent as he tries to land potential draftees, and the waiting tensely for the draft numbers to be called is particularly reminiscent of the other film.  Spurlock, however, manages to do that scene much better.  You care about the draftees much more, and for all that the agent never quite is completely sympathetic, you do feel for him regardless.

This documentary doesn't say a whole lot that savvy sports fans don't already know.  The NCAA doesn't adequately police agent relationship and agents are a necessary cog in the sports machines that look out for the well-being of the athlete.  But the way that it is said is a pretty compelling argument.  Spurlock is clearly a talented interviewer, as the personality of all of the interview subjects comes through very well.

This is one of the best 30 for 30 out there, and I would suggest watching it for anybody who likes the series.

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Sports media that doesn't suck

Hi, my name is Paul, and I am a sports fan.

It may seem odd to word that as a confessional, but the pervasive culture of sports is one of talking heads, empty non-analysis, pining for the old days that never actually happened, and casual misogyny.  I am proud of none of these things, and yet I like sports.  Why?  Partially because I love the competition, spectacle, and physical wonder of it all, but also in large part because I can tune out a lot of the really terrible sports media.

The thing about sports media is that it's not all bad, it's just that the easiest stuff to find is bad.  Almost everything on ESPN is atrocious, in-game commentary is usually full of platitudes, and the commercial culture surrounding sporting events is mostly a competition by advertisers to sell the best substitute for manhood manifested as beer, trucks, or hardware.  But the thing about sports media is that there's so much of it, that if you dig a little bit, you can find intelligent commentary and analysis.  I know when I started looking for this type of stuff, I despaired of ever finding it.  Here's hoping this list will save some people some time.


Hang Up and Listen
My favorite source of sports analysis, by far, is a weekly podcast put out by Slate.  It's run by a Slate Editor, a longform writer (who'll make another appearance in this list), and a contributor to NPR.  This is the best source I've found for focusing on sports as a lens for society.  There's frank discussion of race and gender, as well as plenty of harsh critique for sports media when they revert to peddling the same stale storylines.  If you track down one thing from this article, make it an episode of Hang Up and Listen.

Sports Illustrated
The august old sportsweekly is still one of the best sources for analysis of sports news.  While the internet has stolen some of the thunder of breaking news, SI has gracefully made the move to editorial voice and investigative reporting.  The Scorecard section is a wonderful summary of the past week's events that you may have missed, along with some great contextualization of those events.  The feature story at the end of the magazine, too, is almost always worth reading.  While not focused on current events, the writings of Gary Smith, S.L. Price, Grant Wahl, and others tends to be some of the smoothest writing out there.

A Whole Different Ball Game by Marvin Miller
I can't overstate how much change this single book brought to my viewpoint of sports.  Marvin Miller was the leader of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, and he was the driving force in the change of sports labor, and had a huge role in creating sports as we know them today.  He was also the man who had the nerve to rock the boat and point out that sports were business, and that the owners were pocketing all of the profits and stifling innovation.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton
A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis
Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy
North Dallas Forty
It never fails to amaze me how much the athlete is treated simultaneously as hero and commodity.  These three books and one movie each talk about what it means to be a professional athlete.  It's easy to forget how hard you have to work to be a professional athlete, and it's easy not to realize how merciless it is as a profession.

30 for 30
Much as I don't like ESPN, they are the genesis of the 30 for 30 series.  It was originally created to chronicle 30 important moments in the 30 year history of ESPN, though it has since gone into a second series.  If you follow this blog, you already know that I watch these a lot.  The nature of the series (different director and creative team on every film) leads to hit-or-miss filmmaking, but generally this series is worth watching.  There are some stories I know, some I don't, but most of them are more than just the regurgitation of the dominant myth.  There's more thought put into this than most sports media, and it shows.

Honorable mentions:
Grantland has a good mix of news and number crunching for the hardcore fan, despite the fact that it's owned by ESPN.
The Classical covers sports with a literary bent.
The Best American Sportwriting anthologizes great longform writing for the past century, and every year since, just in case you missed it.
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram did a lot to make me realize that my distaste for certain sports had more to do with my unfair biases and less to do with the sport itself.

30 for 30: Roll Tide/War Eagle

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I'm a big fan of the 30 for 30 series.  It has brought some of the freshest takes on sports journalism in a long, long time.  I recommend it to anyone who is interested in sports beyond the mouthbreather Skip Bayless level.

But sometimes the 30 for 30 series gets too interested in peddling the mythology of the thing it's supposed to be analyzing, and then it just feels like a longform sportscenter featurette.  The House of Steinbrenner and Four Days in October both fall into this trap, and now Roll Tide/War Eagle joins that ignominious parade.

This documentary is probably fun if you're an Auburn or Alabama fan.  For the rest of us, it's an examination of one particular brand of fandom.  The film's biggest reveal is that an overly enthusiastic fan poisoned some traditional trees to really sock it to his rival.  Though this story is horrifying, it's also been covered extensively, and done better elsewhere.

As a whole, this is another one to miss.

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30 for 30: Unguarded

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This is one of the rare 30 for 30 stories I knew nothing about, probably I have only a passing familiarity with basketball.  This is drugs as seen though sport, specifically viewed in the context of Chris Herren.

Herren is homegrown Boston hero who made good by playing for his local high school, his local college, and eventually even his local pro team, but who lost it all due to drugs.  It's a well-known story, and the documentary feels mostly like a regurgitation of the motivational speeches that Herren now gives professionally.  This is a story that needs to be told, for societal as well as personal growth, but it doesn't necessarily make it a particularly interesting story.  This marks the second time that 30 for 30 has tackled drug use via college basketball, with the first being Without Bias, but neither one is particularly striking.  Perhaps it's time to look elsewhere for inspiration.

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