Space Shambles at the Royal Albert Hall

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On Friday, my dad and I went down to London together to see the show Space Shambles at the Royal Albert Hall. It was a one-night-only event, and had been presented as a blend of “science, music, comedy and wonder” – neither of us really knew what to expect.

It was my first time inside the Royal Albert Hall, and it certainly felt fancier than other venues I’d been to. We ate our dinner at Verdi, an Italian restaurant inside the venue, which meant we didn’t have to worry too much about finishing in time. Our pizzas – mine was folded over and stuffed with ham, mushroom and mascarpone – were delicious, and the staff were both friendly and professional, usually holding one or both hands behind their backs when they spoke to you. Then it was time for the show, where we found ourselves seated in a box!

The show itself, chiefly presented by comedian Robin Ince and former astronaut Chris Hadfield, was a collection of different presentations and acts, each very different apart from being themed around space. Even the science presentations were on individual topics without an overall story. This wasn’t a bad thing, though; the variety on offer worked very well, and almost all of it was entertaining. The performance by Stewart Lee – a moaning comedy act making fun of astronauts – was the only thing I couldn’t get into; Robin Ince’s segments, looking over the over-optimistic predictions for future space travel in old space books, and the contents of 1969 newspapers and TV guides, were funnier – plus his impression of Brian Blessed. It was a real treat to see Chris Hadfield in person, and he also did an excellent job at presenting, particularly when paying tribute to the late Professor Stephen Hawking and Alan Bean.

There were some really fascinating scientific lectures; it was a shame that each one couldn’t go on for longer than it did. Professor Jim Al-Khalili gave a summary of the origins and ultimate fate of the Universe, which made me want to look up more of the details I didn’t already know. Dr Helen Czerski was joined by Hawaiian elder Kimokeo Kapahulehua, on his first trip to the UK, to talk about how Pacific natives navigated using the stars. Professor Monica Grady talked about the Rosetta probe, and Professor Lucie Green went from explaining observations of the Sun to the crash landing of the Skylab space station in Australia. (Dad told me how, in 1979, with nobody knowing for certain where Skylab would come down, “Skylab helmets” were on sale in Blackpool.) I would have liked to see more of Dr Suzie Imber – the space scientist who won the Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes show – who was part of a Q&A at the beginning of the second half. Probably my favourite of the science presentations – though they were all excellent – was by Festival of the Spoken Nerd, who performed an experiment to calculate pi using a pendulum with an actual pie as the weight. With the length of the pendulum being 9.8 metres – equal to the force of gravity in metres per second squared – the time of each swing was expected to equal to pi, i.e. 3.14 seconds. Chris Hadfield was responsible for recording the total time of 10 swings, which came out at 31.7 seconds; not bad!

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The musical acts were good, too. There was “Stargazing” by She Makes War, some of which wouldn’t have felt out of place over the opening credits of a Bond film; Grace Petrie with “The Golden Record”; and Sheila Atim giving a great rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”. Public Service Broadcasting would close the show with some tracks that featured their own music accompanied with historic audio on Yuri Gagarin, Apollo 8 and Apollo 11; I liked this unique style a lot once I had time to get into it. (Plus they’ve produced similar work based around the Titanic.) Especially cool was Hadfield bringing out his guitar to perform “Space Oddity”, as he did on the ISS.

A few more segments fell into more miscellaneous categories. Hadfield spoke to Rusty Schweickart, veteran of the Apollo 9 mission which performed the first manned test of the lunar module in Earth orbit. Schweickart talked about how the spacewalk he performed during Apollo 9 widened his perspective of the world and humanity, and how future developments in space flight could progress, particularly to become more cost-effective than the Apollo program. Seb Lee-DeLisle then demonstrated his giant laser projection of a lunar landing arcade game, which Schweickart was able to complete admirably. It didn’t work so well when a setting was enabled so the applause of the audience would control the lander’s thrust; the audience eventually started laughing and sent the lander flying out of sight. Then Reece Shearsmith gave a reading of Carl Sagan’s writing on the Pale Blue Dot, the picture of Earth taken by Voyager 1 from six billion kilometres away.

Sagan’s words, talking about the loneliness and fragility of Earth conveyed by the image, definitely lent themselves well to a wonderful and stimulating evening. I was sad when the event came to an end, and I left with a renewed appreciation of what we’ve learned about the Universe and what could come in the future with the right attitude.

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My first badgers!

I had an exciting time yesterday evening, when I was able to go out to a hide to watch for badgers – which would be the first time I had seen a badger that wasn’t roadkill.

We started watching at about 7:30pm. It proved to be a busy spot in terms of wildlife; there were several nervous rabbits, a couple of grey squirrels having the occasional disagreement, and a colourful jay. Finally, around 8:30, came the moment we had been waiting for: the black-and-white face of an adult female badger emerged from the bushes, hanging around in the open for less than a minute before going back the way she had come.

I wondered if that brief glimpse was all we were going to get, but within the next 45 minutes, a lone badger appeared a couple more times, hanging around the entrance to the sett. Then, at about 9:15, we got a proper look: first the female and one cub emerged and began foraging, before being joined by a second cub, while a second adult started moving around a few metres away. This adult eventually seemed to startle the family, who retreated back into the sett. They spent some time poking their noses out of the holes, before coming out to feed again, this time staying out for nearly half an hour. During an interval, a fox also made a brief appearance, silhouetted among the trees in the background. Definitely a worthwhile evening!

Now here are some badger facts:

  • Nobody knows for certain where the word ‘badger’ comes from; it might originate from the French word becheur, meaning ‘digger’.
  • The Eurasian badger (Meles meles) is the largest terrestrial carnivore in Britain, ‘carnivore’ being the order of mammals to which they belong. In terms of diet, they are actually omnivores: their preferred food is earthworms, but they will also eat insects, smaller mammals (including hedgehogs), fruits and cereals.
  • According to Guinness World Records, the largest badger sett on record contained half a mile of tunnels and had 178 entrances.
  • Badgers make an effort to keep their setts clean, regularly changing their bedding, and defecating in designated outdoor latrines.
  • Badgers can mate at any time of the year: the female can retain fertilised eggs for months before they implant in the wall of her uterus, allowing her to give birth in early spring.
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2018 World Cup predictions

It’s funny to think that at the time of the last World Cup, this blog was just six months old. I can’t believe so much time has passed.

But here we are again! I’m looking forward to some great football – but while I will certainly be hoping that England do well, I’m feeling detached enough to not let it hurt if they fail to perform once again. By the time this season ended, I cared more about Liverpool being in the Champions League final, which proved particularly painful given that they lost due to their best player being injured and a couple of absolute clangers from the goalkeeper.

Back in 2016, after England pathetically lost to Iceland in the European Championship, I wrote a letter warning my 2018 self not to get their hopes up. I’m currently finding it easy to follow my past self’s advice. England’s matches in the last two years have tended to be the footballing equivalent of watching paint dry, and most of the players I used to get excited for have gone. However, we have been getting some positive results under Gareth Southgate, and pundits who know much more about these things than I appear to be cautiously optimistic that the team can at least put in a decent performance, even if nobody expects them to come close to winning the tournament.

So here are my current predictions, before the tournament begins:

Group A: Uruguay & Egypt (assuming Mo Salah is fit)
Group B: Spain & Portugal
Group C: France & Australia
Group D: Argentina & Croatia
Group E: Brazil & Switzerland
Group F: Germany & Mexico
Group G: Belgium & England
Group H: Colombia & Poland

2nd Round
Uruguay vs Portugal = Portugal
France vs Croatia = France
Brazil vs Mexico = Brazil
Belgium vs Poland = Belgium
Spain vs Egypt = Spain
Argentina vs Australia = Argentina
Germany vs Switzerland = Germany
Colombia vs England = England

Quarter Finals
Portugal vs France = France
Brazil vs Belgium = Brazil
Spain vs Argentina = Spain
Germany vs England = Germany

Semi Finals
France vs Brazil = France
Spain vs Germany = Spain

Playoff
Brazil vs Germany = Brazil

Final
France vs Spain = Spain

Have you made any predictions? Let me know in the comments!

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First Man: Trailer Review

This weekend, the trailer for First Man was released. Not to be confused with Early Man, the Aardman animated film about cavemen that was released earlier this year, this particular film is a biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong, based on the biography by James Hansen. I had First Man placed third on my list of most anticipated films for this year, behind Ready Player One and Avengers: Infinity War – anyone who reads this blog will know I love anything to do with space travel, and there aren’t enough feature films based on real-life space history. And this trailer has made me even more eager for the final film.

  • The first thing that strikes me about it is how many notable episodes from Armstrong’s life and career are going to be included, just from this trailer. We see Neil flying the rocket-powered X-15 aircraft before he became an astronaut – though curiously, the audio in this part (“Go with throttle up”) is taken from the real-life audio of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. There are also shots of the fire at the Armstrong family home in 1964, and Neil’s brush with death in 1968 when he was forced to eject from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle.
  • The Apollo 1 fire – which was depicted in the opening scene of Apollo 13 – is also in there.
  • There seems to be plenty of talk about Apollo 11 – what the trailer calls “the most dangerous mission in history” – but we don’t see much of the mission itself in the trailer. We see a lot more of Neil’s first spaceflight, Gemini 8: the launch (confusingly edited with shots of a Saturn V), the in-flight emergency, and even the call for a knife to fix Dave Scott’s harness when some glue was preventing it from connecting properly.
  • It can’t be said yet whether the final film will have the same style, but everything is certainly framed as dramatically as possible in this trailer through the editing and music. I like the use of POV shots, like when Neil steps onto the swaying Gemini 8 gantry, and when he exits the lunar module at the end.
  • Ryan Gosling certainly seems to capture the manner of Neil Armstrong very well: a man of relatively few words, who didn’t give much away and was always calm and professional.

So this biopic looks like it could be both faithful and detailed so far – looking forward to any further developments before the film is released in October.

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Film review – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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I admit that, thanks to my dinosaur-loving inner child, I do have some bias towards the Jurassic Park franchise and am therefore more likely to forgive any flaws that turn up in the films. I enjoyed Jurassic World, and I was looking forward to seeing what Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom would bring to the table. Even if you can’t recapture the magic of the first film, there is surely plenty of material you can come up with for a world where dinosaurs have been brought back to life. Fallen Kingdom does surpass Jurassic Park III, the weakest of the previous installments, in that the story has a point and is a proper continuation of what came immediately beforehand. Unfortunately, it feels like it could have offered the audience much more than what it ultimately delivers. If you weren’t a fan of Jurassic World, I don’t think Fallen Kingdom will win you over.

Three years after the events of Jurassic World, the dinosaurs roaming free on Isla Nublar are being threatened by an impending volcanic eruption, and there is fierce debate as to whether action should be taken, or the resurrected and ultimately unnatural animals should be allowed to become extinct once again. (No mention is made of Isla Sorna from the second and third films, where it may be assumed that the dinosaurs have already died out.) Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the former operations manager of Jurassic World, is recruited by John Hammond’s old business partner for an unsanctioned operation to rescue and re-locate as many dinosaurs as possible – with fellow former employee Owen (Chris Pratt) tagging along as only he can capture Blue, the one remaining Velociraptor. However, when the team arrives on Isla Nublar, it’s not just the volcano they have to worry about – something more nefarious is going on.

If you’re looking for dinosaur action, you’ve come to the right place with this film. It kicks off right away with some hapless mercenaries falling foul of the T-Rex and Mosasaurus, and goes from there. The whole thing is well-paced, and I never felt bored. The volcanic eruption sequence – which looked like it might be the climax following the first trailer – is suitably exciting and frantic, even if there is some application of ‘movie physics’ regarding how close you can get to molten lava without burning. Several new dinosaurs are thrown into the mix for some variety, including Baryonyx, Carnotaurus and Stygimoloch – even if the dinosaurs still don’t look as good as in the 90s, the visuals are satisfactory at least. The genetically-engineered Indominus rex from Jurassic World gets a successor in the Indoraptor, which is only really used in the third act; as it turns out, less is more.

Once you’ve calmed down from the excitement of the first half, however, the film ultimately turns out to be generic, predictable, and lacking in layers, besides the old story of man suffering the consequences for greed and being too careless with scientific progress. The characters, both old and new, are unmemorable – though at least the obligatory child isn’t an annoyance. The villains are a two-dimensional crew, consisting of two greedy businessmen and one great white hunter; they make some incredibly stupid decisions just to ensure that the plot goes in the direction it needs to, and they’re so obviously going to end up as dinosaur food that they might as well be sprinkling themselves with salt and pepper every now and then. Sadly, Jeff Goldblum’s much-anticipated return to the role of Ian Malcolm is wasted; he only appears in two brief scenes at the beginning and end, with barely any opportunity to show off his classic Goldblum-ness.

My advice is to take Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as a basic dinosaur-themed action adventure – on that level, it manages to be an entertaining experience in spite of its flaws. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Prehistoric Profiles: Velociraptor

Time to talk dinosaurs – and what better dinosaur to talk about than the source of my blog’s web address, the Velociraptor?

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The Jurassic Park franchise created an image of Velociraptor as a merciless supreme predator, which combined lightning speed, high intelligence and teamwork to hunt and take down its prey. This image was eagerly picked up by other sources: one video game from my childhood, 3D Dinosaur Adventure, stated, “A human being could have been torn apart in 30 seconds by a pack of Velociraptors.” But while the real Velociraptor was probably not to be trifled with, it was very different from its familiar cinematic representation.

Velociraptor – whose name comes from the Latin words velox, meaning “swift”, and raptor, meaning “thief” or “plunderer” – was first discovered in 1923, on an expedition in the Gobi Desert, Outer Mongolia, by the American Museum of Natural History. Multiple good-quality fossils have been found since, and two species are recognised: Velociraptor mongoliensis, the type species, and Velociraptor osmolskae, discovered in Inner Mongolia, China, and described in 2008. Like other members of its family, the Dromaeosauridae, Velociraptor was an agile, bird-like carnivore, with large three-fingered hands, a stiffened tail, and a sickle-shaped claw on the second toe of each foot. It lived around 75 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous Period, roaming a sandy, arid habitat similar to how the Gobi Desert is today.

A clear difference between the Jurassic Park incarnation of Velociraptor, and the real animal, is that the latter was significantly smaller, growing up to two metres long and not quite reaching up to a grown man’s waist. But that’s not all: in 2007, it was announced that the real Velociraptor had feathers! A forearm bone was found to feature a line of raised quill knobs, indicating that Velociraptor had fourteen feathers extending from each arm, and almost certainly additional feathers covering the rest of its body. Since Velociraptor would certainly not have been able to fly, it may have used the feathers for display, or for assistance when running up inclines. So when, in Jurassic Park, the little boy at Alan Grant’s digsite described Velociraptor as a “six-foot turkey”, he really wasn’t far off the mark. Velociraptor‘s older relative Deinonychus is a better match for the fictional “raptors” in terms of size and American locality; the original novel by Michael Crichton appears to use “velociraptor” in the same way that palaeontologists technically say “velociraptorine” to group Velociraptor and its closest relatives (palaeontologists disagree as to whether Deinonychus belongs in this group.) But in fairness, Velociraptor rolls off the tongue a little better than Deinonychus.

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Smaller animals, like the lizards and mammals sharing its habitat, would have been welcome snacks for Velociraptor – but did it ever go after anything larger? Three particular fossils have given us more knowledge about Velociraptor‘s eating habits than we possess for most other theropod dinosaurs. The first and most famous, the “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil, was discovered in 1971; a Velociraptor that died while locked together with a similar-sized herbivore, Protoceratops. By all appearances, the two animals were in a furious struggle before they were possibly buried in sand without warning; the Protoceratops is grasping the Velociraptor‘s right arm in its beak, while the Velociraptor grapples its opponent’s head with its left hand, and raises one of its foot claws towards the throat.

Not everyone agrees that this was a predator-prey confrontation – but another fossil, described in 2010, provides proof that Velociraptor did eat Protoceratops: a jawbone, believed to belong to Protoceratops, with teethmarks matching Velociraptor‘s upon it. However, since the jaw would hardly have provided the best-quality flesh, it is speculated that the Velociraptor was feeding on a carcass which had already been mostly eaten. In addition, a 2012 paper describes a sub-adult Velociraptor that had ingested a pterosaur bone; the pterosaur in question would have been large enough to be a challenging prospect if it were alive, so this is also thought to have been a result of scavenging.

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A 2005 BBC documentary, The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs, featured an experiment to see if Velociraptor‘s famous sickle claw could actually disembowel large prey, as popularly believed. A claw on a mechanical leg was used to slash a pork belly, but couldn’t fully penetrate the flesh. The documentary concluded that the claw was a precision instrument, used to kill prey by cutting its throat, as apparently demonstrated in the aforementioned “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil. And did Velociraptor hunt in packs? We don’t know: fossils of Deinonychus have been found together in what might have been a pack, but in his encyclopedia Dinosaurs, palaeontologist Thomas R. Holtz Jr suggests that pack-hunting wouldn’t have been an optimal strategy for Velociraptor since it lived in the desert where there wouldn’t have been much prey to share. As for intelligence, that’s hard to judge from bones, but figuring out how to operate door handles – had there been any doors to open in the Late Cretaceous – was probably beyond a Velociraptor‘s brain.

So, if you did actually go on a time-travelling expedition to observe Velociraptors, you would be most likely to find a solitary, feathered creature, no bigger than a golden retriever. Would it still attack you? Probably best not to attract its attention unnecessarily, just in case.

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R.I.P. Alan Bean

Alan Bean

Yesterday, it was announced that another Apollo moonwalker has sadly passed away: Apollo 12 lunar module pilot, Alan LaVern Bean.

Born in Wheeler, Texas in 1932, Bean was a US Navy test pilot when he was selected for NASA’s third group of astronauts in 1963. In Michael Collins’ autobiography, Carrying the Fire, he describes Bean as a “very pleasant fellow to be around, especially if you like spaghetti, which is all he eats on a trip.” In 1966, Bean was assigned to the Apollo Applications Program, focussing on plans for the first American space station. It looked like he would be denied the chance to fly to the Moon – but that changed in October 1967, when fellow astronaut C.C. Williams was killed in a jet crash. Bean was called to take Williams’ place as lunar module pilot on what would ultimately be the backup crew for Apollo 9; the commander was Charles “Pete” Conrad, who had been an instructor of Bean’s at the Patuxent River Naval Test Pilot School, and the command module pilot was Dick Gordon, another Navy pilot who had already flown with Conrad on Gemini 11.

Conrad, Gordon and Bean – one of the most closely-knit of all Apollo crews – headed into space together on Apollo 12, the second lunar landing mission, on 14th November 1969. When the Saturn V was struck by lightning shortly after liftoff, throwing off the spacecraft’s telemetry to Mission Control, the crew was instructed to try “SCE to Aux” – and it was Bean who knew the location of the switch which restored data flow. Five days later, Bean became the fourth man to walk on the Moon after he and Conrad touched down in the Ocean of Storms; they carried out two EVAs, during which they visited and recovered parts from the unmanned lunar probe Surveyor 3.

In 1973, Bean commanded Skylab 3, the second mission to Skylab, the space station conceived as part of the Apollo Applications Program. Launching on 28th July and returning on 25th September, Bean and his crew – Jack Lousma and Owen Garriott – spent 59 days in Earth orbit, studying the effects of long-term weightlessness on their own bodies, and performing other experiments, including one to see if spiders could spin webs in zero-gravity. They also pulled a prank on Mission Control by playing them a voice recording of Garriott’s wife, saying that she had gone up to the station to bring the crew a home-cooked meal. The Skylab 3 crew were so productive that they ended up exceeding their pre-set goals for the mission.

When Bean retired from NASA in 1981, it was to make a career of one of his long-time hobbies: painting. Bean spent the rest of his life as an artist, using his unique memories to paint scenes from the Apollo program, to which he would add genuine moondust obtained from his old mission patches. His paintings can be seen at www.alanbean.com.

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Nature Profiles: The Chinese Giant Salamander

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I said at the beginning of the New Year that I wanted to write about more of the factual subjects that I’m interested in on this blog; so I’m planning on writing some posts on interesting animals, both living and extinct. Let’s start with an amphibian that you may have seen mentioned in the news this week: the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) – or, as it is sometimes known in China, “baby fish”, as its vocalisations are thought to sound like a crying baby.

As you can see in the picture (taken by myself at ZSL London Zoo in 2015), the Chinese giant salamander is both very odd-looking, and far bigger than the average salamander. In fact, it’s the biggest amphibian in the world today, capable of growing up to 1.8 metres long. It belongs to a family called the Cryptobranchidae, whose history in the fossil record dates all the way back to the Jurassic Period, 170 million years ago – the only other cryptobranchids still alive today are the Japanese giant salamander, and the hellbender from the eastern United States.

Chinese giant salamanders are completely aquatic, and like to live in rocky streams in mountainous, forested areas. Adults breathe underwater through their skin; the folds along their sides are to increase the available surface area for respiration. Primarily sensing their prey through vibration due to having poor eyesight, they will eat just about anything they can catch, including smaller members of their own species. These salamanders do have a softer side, however: after a female lays her eggs – hundreds at a time – the male takes responsibility for guarding them until they hatch.

Unfortunately, this fascinating amphibian is Critically Endangered in the wild. Not only is its habitat being destroyed and polluted, but giant salamanders are also harvested to eat, and for use in Chinese medicine. Farms in China raise millions of salamanders for their meat; some of these will be released into the wild, but captive animals can both spread disease to wild populations and compromise their genetic integrity. Recently, a genetic analysis of giant salamander populations confirmed the existence at least five genetically distinct lineages; lack of knowledge about this could lead to the extinction of unique genetic diversity, if it hasn’t already. Many challenges remain – preserving suitable habitat and genetic lineages, stopping illegal poaching, and improving farming practices – if Chinese giant salamanders are to be saved from existing only on farms, destined for Chinese dinner plates.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_giant_salamander

https://chinesegiantsalamanders.org/

Yan et al. (2018), The Chinese giant salamander exemplifies the hidden extinction of cryptic species. Current Biology 28 (10), pR590-R592.

 

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Film review: Deadpool 2

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Produced as a result of leaked test footage, and delivering a far more comic-loyal version of the character than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first Deadpool film was a huge success. On a budget of $58 million, it was not only the highest grossing film in Fox’s X-Men franchise, but the highest grossing R-rated film ever – that’s music to a studio’s ears, so a sequel was inevitable. As before, the marketing has been both hilarious and relentless – and they even got Celine Dion to record a single for the film! As for the film itself, despite there being a new director – David Leitch in place of Tim Miller – the general approach seems to have been that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Deadpool, a.k.a. Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is continuing his career as a mercenary and assassin, while still sporting his red-and-black costume and super-healing ability – but the beginning of the film sees his life abruptly and painfully falling apart. This leads to Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) dragging the despondent Deadpool to the X-Mansion, offering him friendly support, and a new direction in life as an X-Man. Unfortunately, Deadpool’s first mission ends with him being imprisoned along with a volatile young mutant named Russell (Julian Dennison) – and if that wasn’t bad enough, a time-travelling cyborg named Cable (Josh Brolin) turns up, intent on killing Russell and changing the future. From there, Deadpool is left to build his own mutant team, save his new friend, and hopefully become a better person in the process.

The main positive about this sequel is that the story is much meatier than the first film. With Deadpool’s origins out of the way, there’s more room for character development, and a more complex framework to support all the action and humour that the audience is expecting. The amount of overall content is escalated, including a surprise appearance by a major X-Men character (who is much more loyal to the comics than they were when they last appeared in the franchise). The main negative is that it takes a while for the film to settle into a rhythm: in the first act, the tone is all over the place, bouncing from the extremes of seriousness to tongue-in-cheek, before it becomes more stable. Aside from that, everything else is basically the same as what came before. The jokes – ranging from fourth-wall breaking, to pop culture references from a wide range of sources, to taking shots at other superhero films – are still funny and relatively fresh. Ryan Reynolds’s performance is still brilliant, and of the new cast, Zazie Beetz as Domino – who boasts good luck as a superpower – is the highlight.

So this is only a short review, but there’s not that much to say. What it boils down to is, whatever you thought of the first Deadpool film, Deadpool 2 gives you more in the same vibe. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Moby Dick: Shut Up and Get to the Whale!

Moby Dick

With Moby Dick being free to download on Kindle, I’ve already tried twice to read it in text format. The first time, I gave up about a third of the way through. A few years later, I tried again, thinking that with some extra maturity and experience on my part, this time it wouldn’t be quite so boring and the dense prose not so much of a struggle to fight my way through. I was wrong. Yet I was still reluctant to abandon the book altogether. This may be because I had read an illustrated version of Moby Dick in high school, which I assumed was simply abridged, and thought that was pretty good. Looking up that version online, however, I found that it wasn’t just abridged but “retold” – it technically hadn’t reproduced the original text. Anyway, I decided to turn to Audible; listening to the audio version had worked pretty well for Ulysses, so why not Moby Dick?

Well, I’ve now reached the end, and I was indeed able to take more of the prose in, though it is still difficult and overly eloquent. Outside of that, it was….okay.

Moby Dick actually reminded me of Ulysses in that it has an overall style all of its own – and there’s also a lot of rambling. Most people know that the main story is about a whaling voyage where the captain, Ahab, is obsessed with hunting down Moby Dick, the white sperm whale who took off his leg. While it’s a basic quest story at its heart, Herman Melville gets as much as he can out of it, inserting lots of not-very-subtle symbolism about the hubris of man and the power of nature/God that he has no hope of ultimately conquering.

Yet of the one-hundred-and-thirty-five chapters in this nearly twenty-five-hour audiobook, only somewhere between half and two-thirds of them actually concern this story. For the rest, Melville – or rather, his narrator, Ishmael – wishes to teach the reader all about whales and whaling. Just about every little detail is covered, from whether whaling is an honourable profession, to whales in the fossil record (as of 1851, when the book was published), to the best and worst illustrations of whales, to why white is a frightening colour. In a chapter entitled ‘Cetology’, Ishmael lays down his own classification of whales, which makes for confusing reading over one-and-a-half centuries later as you try to match Ishmael’s species with those recognised today. In another, he has the foresight to speculate on whether there is a risk that whales will be hunted to extinction; he concludes not, as whalers don’t kill that many whales and they can always find safe regions to shelter. (Sadly, of course, he underestimated the persistence of human hunters and the slow rate at which whales replenish their numbers.) There is even a reference to the real-life event that served as inspiration for the story: the sinking of the whaling ship Essex by a sperm whale in 1820.

A lot of this information is certainly interesting on its own, but in this case, it’s mixed in with a fictional adventure – and that created frustration because often, when Ishmael stopped to deliver another info-dump, I was often more eager to find out what would happen next in the story. It becomes more difficult to focus: sometimes even the object of the quest, Moby Dick himself – who only shows up in the flesh for the final three chapters – feels less important than the cetology lesson. It’s also more difficult to connect with the characters this way, though there are some good individual chapters which get inside their heads. Ishmael being overly dramatic is sometimes amusing – after tripping over an ash-box, he jokingly wonders to himself if they are the ashes of Gomorrah – but we generally don’t get a strong feel for his relationships with other characters, even his friend Queequeg. Nor does he seem especially affected by the ordeal that he is telling the reader about. I recall the aforementioned retold version handling this better.

Moby Dick is certainly a unique book, and by all appearances, a strong case of the author producing just the sort of book he wanted to write. I am glad that I finally finished it, but unlike with Ulysses, I don’t think I’ll get anything more out of it if I return.

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