Ty Fujimura

Ty Fujimura is a "Creative/Professional" offering web design, graphic design, and marketing strategy. He lives and works in Park Slope, Brooklyn with his lovely wife Priscilla.

For the Uninitiated, a World Cup Cheat Sheet

Messi
Image via Wikipedia

In the U.S., soccer is considered more of a children’s activity than bona fide sport, niche programming appropriate for a mid-afternoon spot on ESPN 8 between competitive hacky sack and the World Series of Poker. The world’s obsession is all well and good, but for us? Football means first downs and cheerleaders, thankyouverymuch.

Yet the spectacle of a World Cup is enough to compel even stubborn Americans to pay attention. Last time, in 2006, Italy’s victory over France drew 16.9 million viewers in the U.S. Those are American Idol numbers, and this year promises to be even bigger. The U.S. – surprisingly ­‑ leads the world in tickets purchased for this summer’s World Cup, and the core group of supporters, dubbed “Sam’s Army,” is larger than ever.

While the die-hards are as dedicated as anyone in the world, they will be well outnumbered when the U.S. kicks off against England on June 12. The audience for that game will be the largest for any U.S. Men’s national team game ever. It will also be the most uninformed viewership of any World Cup nation.

Among them will be a special American brand of modern jackass: World Cup Guy.

You know the type. He fancies himself an expert, or a European, or both. He’ll show up in a Beckham jersey with the tags still on it, use the word “footie,” and generally act like he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll pontificate on players and tactics like a cab driver from Rio. The secret? He has no idea what he’s talking about.

So get armed with the facts now. He’ll never see it coming.

The Basics

The World Cup is contested between 32 teams who mostly earned their spots though regional qualifying tournaments. The teams are drawn into eight groups of four. Each team plays each other team in its group once, earning three points for a win, one point for a draw, and nothing for a loss. The top two teams move on to the knockout stage, where it’s winner-moves-on until there’s only one left standing.

U-S-A, U-S-A!

The US team is the strongest it’s ever been, with a core of veteran players in their prime supported by a bevy of young talent.

Included in that veteran group is midfielder Landon Donovan, the only American player World Cup Guy will have heard of. This is not only the last World Cup of his prime but also his last chance to get signed by a big European team.

The defense is anchored by the strong trio of Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, and captain Carlos Bocanegra. Their main weakness is speed, and a quick attacker like England’s Aaron Lennon could cause them problems.

Of the guys nobody has heard of, the most promising is midfielder Michael Bradley, son of head coach Bob Bradley. He’s had a good career in Europe so far and looks like a potential world star. His midfield partner will be either the precise passer Jose Torres or the powerful, gritty Maurice Edu. Twenty-year-old striker Jozy Altidore will lead the attack.

Altidore’s close friend and fellow striker Charlie Davies was left nearly paralyzed by a car accident in October. The driver, a friend of Davies, was killed. Davies made a Herculean effort to return in time for the World Cup, but ultimately missed out, leaving Altidore without his preferred strike partner and the U.S. team with no clear second starter up front.

There are plenty of other problems. In preliminary matches the U.S. defense looked shaky and disorganized. Onyewu and DeMerit are recovering from injuries, and it’s unclear whether they’re playing at full capacity. Coach Bradley selected only seven defenders, and if Onyewu or DeMerit can’t play, they’re in trouble.

But the team has an edge: chemistry. Other countries may have 23 star players, but they’re distant stars, never willing or able to build the trust and cohesion that the U.S. team has.

World Cup Guy will probably harp on how awful America is – or how amazing. The truth is somewhere in between. For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. can legitimately expect to get through the group stage. Further progression is unlikely, but with a bit of luck, they can beat anyone.

The Favorites

Brazil, Spain, England, and Argentina lead the pack. Spain is absolutely stacked with talent, but has traditionally underperformed at the World Cup and has never won it. Brazil is often the runaway favorite, but the team’s best players at the moment aren’t quite as good as usual, and they have had to adapt their approach to stress strong tactics and fundamentals over flashy skill.

England has plenty of talent but tends to collapse in spectacular fashion when the pressure gets high. Despite inventing the game, they’ve only won the World Cup once, 44 years ago, generating a culture of losing that could easily derail them.

Argentina is the mystery of the group. They have wonderful talent – including the world’s best player, Lionel Messi – and are coached by the legendary Diego Maradona. But Maradona’s playing career ended in a coke-induced tailspin, and his decisions as a manager have been inexplicably poor.

Messi scored a phenomenal 47 goals for Barcelona this year (ordinary forwards score 12 goals per year, world-class forwards score 30). World Cup Guy will think that Messi’s presence will be enough to lead Argentina to glory. But Messi has never played his best for Argentina, where he is usually asked to occupy an unfamiliar role with less support. Don’t be surprised if he stinks.

Transition and Turmoil

World Cup Guy will consider Italy, France, and Portugal elite, but this World Cup finds them all in an awkward phase. Each of these teams has a group of once-great players who are past their glory days, and the next generation hasn’t matured enough to make up for the diminishing effectiveness of the veterans.

The French team in particular is in trouble. They’re in midst of a cringe-inducing scandal involving an underage prostitute, barely qualified for the competition, and have a lame-duck head coach with a 22% approval rating from French fans. They could go out early.

The Details

World Cup Guy may wonder why the players are wearing long sleeves – it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere. World Cup Guy’s favorites Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were not selected by Brazil, but Portuguese forward Christiano Ronaldo is in. Several superstars will miss all or part of the tournament through injury, notably England’s Rio Ferdinand, Ghana’s Michael Essien, and Ivory Coast’s Dider Drogba.

South Africa is terrible, but no host nation has ever failed to qualify for the group stage, and with the nation behind them, they may have some success.

Every match will be instrumentalized by thousands of Vuvuzelas, stadium horns that annoy everyone but the South Africans. Even more annoying is the sound of World Cup Guy asking what “that buzzing sound” is, as the issue has been discussed ad nauseum in soccer circles.

Ready?

Unlike professional sports, where the fans care more than the players, and Olympic sports, where the players care more than the fans, the World Cup earns 100% passion from both sides.

The World Cup is the globe’s biggest sporting event because of this elusive, unique harmony. It’s a stubborn oasis from our dominant cynical sports culture, a refuge for sportsmanship and pride. America pays attention simply because there’s nothing else like it. Shut World Cup Guy up, sit back, and enjoy.

Fallout 3:
Maturing the Action RPG Genre


Fallout 3, by Bethesda.

Few games have been as hyped as Fallout 3. The latest installment in a venerable franchise, as well as Bethesda Softworks’s first major release since their 2006 smash hit Oblivion, the title has much to live up to. Fortunately, it meets those expectations handily, offering gamers an engrossing and rich experience that sets the bar for the action RPG genre going forward.

Life begins in the apparent safety of the fallout shelter, called Vault 101, in which you choose your character’s essential attributes. The mechanics of character choice are organically presented as you explore, eventually leading you out of the vault and into the Capital Wasteland in search of your runaway father.

As in the other Fallout games, this one is set in the post-apocalyptic remains of Washington, DC. While the small human population has begun to rebuild society, the cultural milieu is stuck in the 1950s, giving the game a unique fingerprint and a fascinating premise. Retro-futuristic dark humor is rampant (and hilarious). The Capital Wasteland is an unmonitored, unpoliced zone, and the game illustrates the captivating results of a world run by nobody. Fallout explores the nature of man by illustrating the genesis of social relations in the wake of a nuclear reset.

The landscape is visually monotonous, belying the vast variety of experiences available within it. I’m not talking about fetch quests – Bethesda has steered well clear of triviality. Instead, the side action is deep and meaningful. You’re frequently presented with difficult moral dilemmas: kill a drug addict and you can keep her whole stash; negotiate, and you could be rewarded without getting your hands dirty. Such freedom to be evil is completely appropriate, considering the anarchy of the world you are exploring. You can be a hero as well, though. Aiding a history buff in recovering the declaration of independence from baddies occupying the ruins of the Smithsonian is particularly fulfilling.

The unique premise creates a perfect foundation for thought-provoking storylines, while developing your character throughout as a part of the fabric of the Capital Wasteland. Fallout is completely immersive. From the Etta James record playing on the radio to the Geiger-counter menu style to the 1950s-style refrigerators filled with radioactive TV dinners and Nuka-Cola, every element just seems to fit. The visual and aural design aesthetic is well-crafted and remarkably consistent. Everything is scarred, torn, and filthy, building a sense of time and place.

Fallout’s graphics are average in terms of pixels pushed, but Bethesda wisely chose to focus on texture quality and visual style. The game looks exactly as post-apocalyptic DC would. Dark grays and browns dominate, and everything from the buildings to the trees is marked by wear and decay.

The map is littered with points of interest, many of which are familiar to the present-day player. The Lincoln Memorial, the Mall, and the Washington Monument are all present. What’s left of the White House, the Washington Memorial, the Mall – they’re all here, forming a miniature version of downtown DC. The Capital itself only forms a fraction of the map, though. The rest is suburban Maryland, the wild west, a landscape dotted with signs of the times. Destroyed highway overpasses, ruined radio towers, and abandoned settlements populate the wastes, inviting you to investigate. The sparse pre-civilization that you discover is fascinating and entertaining. The towns are imaginatively crafted, diverse, and truly fun to explore. Rivet City, for example, is a repurposed battleship docked in the former Navy Yards in south DC. Such ingenuity is emblematic of the spirit of this new world, and the resilience of the population is a hopeful message from Bethesda. Yes, the pervasive attitude of the Capital Wasteland is a self-centered, mercenary one, but human cooperation persists. We can always recover, no matter how badly we screw up the world we’ve been given.

The main storyline is functional, but not spectacular. The redeeming moment is the climactic final act, which is pure action-hero badassery. There are some touching moments, and some cool ones, but overall the story works mostly to guide you from one city to the next. Every stop will lead you on interesting tangents, and in a game like this, that’s really the point.

But while the side quests are certainly fun, there is a noticeable lack of structure to them. Most RPGs have quest lines; in Oblivion, for example, the Guilds provided dozens of quests and the concrete goal of advancement within the guild. Fallout has more of a quest “cloud”. This omission of structure is the result of a deliberate decision on Bethesda’s part, considering the improvisational, disorganized character of the Capital Wasteland. But they certainly could have done something similar without betraying the spirit of the game, and it would have provided a much longer and more fulfilling experience. Combined with a frustratingly low level cap, the game suffers from a lack of ability to motivate the player after the “wow” factor wears off.

Thankfully, Bethesda plans to expand the game significantly via downloadable content in the near future. The first pack scheduled for release, Operation: Anchorage, will plug you into a “military simulation” of a battle against the communist Chinese that is an important part of the game’s lore. The Pitt and Broken Steel are scheduled for later this spring. Hopefully, Bethesda will add content that keeps the player going.

The gameplay is standard fare for a first/third person RPG, save for the focus on gunplay. The aim mechanic is totally crude, but fortunately the innovative V.A.T.S. mechanic takes away the need for a more refined system. V.A.T.S. allows the player to pause, survey the targets in front of them, and select particular areas of the opponent to aim for. The game gives you your odds of hitting certain areas, and if a body part takes enough damage, it becomes crippled, debilitating your foe. You can also aim for their weapon, and if you are successful, your enemy become a sitting duck. This mechanic places Fallout right between a traditional turn-based RPG and a twitchy shoot-em-up, allowing the player to choose the style that suits them more. Some gamers, myself included, detest playing first-person shooters with console thumbstick controllers, and this scheme is the perfect solution.

Fallout 3 represents a maturation for the genre. The title is incredibly polished, but not revolutionary. Its lack of direction means that you’ll spend fewer hours playing Fallout than you would playing another “Epic RPG” type of game, but those will be high-quality hours. The star of the show is the Capital Wasteland itself, and this game is worth picking up just to experience it. Despite some niggling flaws, this is an enthralling title that shouldn’t be missed.

Tech Top Ten

2008 was a busy year in technology – from new products appearing on the scene to old ones winning out over the competition (or not) to company rearrangement to (possibly) the end of the world. Here are ten of the most significant technology stories that hit the news in 2008.


The Apple iPhone 3G

iPhone 3G, App Store.
While the first-generation iPhone grabbed a greater-than-expected market share, it was the 3G version that truly catapulted the iPhone brand into prominence. A $199 price point made the device a palatable option for those accustomed to a free, subsidized LG or Samsung. The brand new app store created a revolutionary business model for developers, albeit a tightly-monitored one. A new era has arrived in the tech world: the iPhone has surpassed the Moto Razr in worldwide sales, challenging other manufacturers to respond with premium devices at affordable price points.

The iCompetition: The HTC Touch Pro, the Sony XPERIA X1, and the Blackberry Bold.
And respond they did. This year’s crop of premium Windows Mobile devices, though innately hampered by their OS, trounced the iPhone’s feature set. The Bold, mixing classing Blackberry functionality in a sexy package, added its name to the list of potential rivals. It is unlikely that one of these devices will unseat the iPhone, but it’s a step in the right direction, and an indication that HTC and RIM will not sit idly by and let Apple raid their customer bases.


Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
and Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang

Microhoo/Yahoosoft.
On again, off again – this year’s most mercurial celebrity couple was Steve Ballmer and Jerry Yang. Yang declined a proposed takeover at $31/share, and again at $33, only to watch the stock plummet to single-digit lows. Only time will tell whether the as-yet-unannounced new Yahoo! CEO will try to resurrect merger talks, or whether the FTC would even allow any.

The T-Mobile G1.
Despite the inevitable shortfalls of a first-generation device (one bug reset the phone whenever the user typed “reboot”), the world’s first phone running Google’s open-source Android platform recorded solid sales and garnered a following in the gadget world. While the device operates more like a prototype than a finished product, it is only a matter of time before an inspired manufacturer taps into Android’s rich potential.

Blu-ray wins; nobody buys any Blu-rays.
February 19th saw Toshiba’s concession in the next-gen format war, essentially ending HD-DVD‘s bid to become the new standard. But despite the resulting coronation of Blu-ray, consumers failed to flock to the platform. Thus far, DVD has been just fine for most people, thank you – and with the proliferation of free, nearly-HD content from iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, it may be a long time before demand meets expectations.

The Netbook Revolution.
Once seen as delicate toys, these mini-laptops enjoyed a serious boom in 2008. Increased migration from desktop to browser based apps created a niche for an ultraportable, underpowered, underpriced alternative to traditional laptop systems. Expect to see more and more such diminutive devices in 2009.


The Nintendo Wii

The Wii‘s Domination.
At the end of 2007, Nintendo’s quirky console seemed like a short-lived fad. Surely gamers would turn back to high definition and lifelike blood splatter, right? Instead, a rapidly-expanding pool of soccer moms and grandparents become Wii devotees overnight. Nintendo has not only grabbed a huge piece of the pie, but made it bigger as well. The question in 2009 is whether they can actually sell software for their little white cash cow.

Bill Gates Retires.
While the head geek himself will certainly still figure in Microsoft’s business operations, his retirement was confirmation of the passing of the old guard in the tech industry. Fortunately, his newfound free time will not be wasted away on the golf course: In addition to running his billion dollar charity, Gates has quietly founded a mysterious “think tank” named bgC3. Watch this space.

Obama’s CTO.
A sign of the times: After securing a historic election victory with the help of a online fundraising arsenal, the president-elect is set to appoint the nation’s first-ever Chief Technology Officer. The brand-new “Tech Czar” will oversee issues from net neutrality to nationwide broadband, helping ensure that the U.S. remains at the forefront of innovation for years to come.


The Large Hadron Collider

Large Hadron Collider.
While critics lambasted the particle accelerator’s approximately $10 billion price tag and potential to collapse our solar system like a bag of chips in a campfire, the project was widely considered a success by scientists – that is, until it broke. Now we’ll have to wait until summer 2009 to collide microscopic proton beams at 99.999999% the speed of light.