The Mystery Blogger Award

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Thank you very much to Petrel41 from Dear Kitty. Some Blog for nominating me for the Mystery Blogger Award! This award originates from Okoto Enigma, but unfortunately their blog no longer seems to be working.

The rules of the Mystery Blogger Award are:

  1. Put the award logo/image on your blog
  2. List the rules
  3. Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog
  4. Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well
  5. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself
  6. You have to nominate 10 – 20 people
  7. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog
  8. Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question (specify)
  9. Share a link to your best post(s)
  10. Answer the questions your nominator gave you.

Three Things About Myself

1. One of my ambitions is to see every Apollo command module. So far, I have seen three:

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Apollo 10 – Science Museum, London: photographed in 2008.

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Apollo 11 – National Air & Space Museum, Washington DC: photographed in 2009.

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Apollo 14 – US Astronaut Hall of Fame, Florida: photographed in 2007. (Those are my cousins in front!)

2. I was in an earthquake once, while on holiday on the Greek island of Kefalonia in 2003. It’s a memory that has stuck very vividly in my mind. I heard the rumble first, and I was just wondering if it was a low-flying plane when the apartment started shaking. My dad shouted “Everybody out!” and we all scurried out the front door, at which point the shaking stopped and we all started laughing nervously; the whole thing lasted about 20 seconds. The quake measured 6.4 on the Richter scale, but there was no real damage where we were. We were supposed to be going home that day, but our plane was several hours late, and I was extremely on edge waiting at the airport, even more so when there was an aftershock that made the windows rattle.

3. I am a dog person today, but I used to prefer cats. I did my high school work experience at an RSPCA centre, and I liked working with the cats simply because they were quieter and much more calm. Then my family actually got a dog and from then on, there was no looking back.

My Best Post

I’ll pick my review of the Pixar film Inside Out. The film itself really made me think, and the review itself was one I felt very pleased with.

Answering Petrel41’s Five Questions

1. Who is your favourite artist?

Ken Marschall, for his paintings of the Titanic and other ships.

2. Who are your three least favourite prominent people in politics or business?

Donald Trump may seem an obvious answer, but that’s the way of it: on top of much else that he’s done (and continues to do), a significant portion of my own judgement of politicians comes from their environmental policies, and in that area, Trump simply does not give a damn. In terms of my own government, I’m not happy about Brexit, but it’s difficult to narrow responsibility for that down to just a few people.

3. Which is your favourite bird species?

The peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on Earth and one of the most globally widespread of all birds.

4. Which is your favourite mammal species?

The killer whale, a fascinating animal in so many ways: it is a very successful predator with a variety of sophisticated hunting techniques, and the global population is divided into genetically distinct races which differ in social behaviour and preferred prey.

5. 2019 has only just started. What is the best thing which happened to you in this new year?

I managed a 20-minute run with an average pace of 4:58 per kilometre, the fastest I’ve ever run!

My Nominees

Baking Thad Books

Gallifreyan Ramblings

The Critiquing Chemist

Alex Raphael

My Five Questions

1. What city have you not yet visited that you would most like to?
2. What three books would you take to a desert island?
3. Do you prefer dogs or cats? (You can say neither if you like!)
4. What do you most enjoy writing about?
5. Literally a funny question: what was the last thing to make you laugh out loud?

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What is it like to have Asperger Syndrome? (My 500th Post)

This is the 500th post I’ve made on this blog; thank you very much to everyone who’s been reading over the past five years! This feels like a good time to start talking properly about my experiences with having Asperger Syndrome. Having briefly made reference to the subject in 2018, I wanted to write about it more this year; I’ve gained more confidence in talking about it and I hope that in sharing my experiences, I can both gain a new personal perspective, and inform and/or help other people who either have Asperger’s or know somebody who does.

First I want to talk about just what having Asperger’s means for me. Asperger Syndrome is a condition on the autism spectrum; in fact, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders no longer recognises it as a separate diagnosis from autism, but it’s still a commonly used label, and I still prefer using it out of familiarity. Every case of Asperger’s or autism is unique – hence the term ‘spectrum’ – but they tend to have certain symptoms in common.

The most prominent of these is the difficulty found in socialising. Understanding social rules, and reading how other people feel, seems to come naturally to most people – but for me, it’s harder. To me, having Asperger’s is like living in a foreign country where you’re not fluent in the language. Instead of having a natural sense of what to do in a social situation, I have to actively process the right actions – especially in novel situations – like manually accessing a file from a hard drive. Sometimes I don’t talk very much; when at college and university, people often said I was blunt, given my minimal use of words. Sometimes it’s difficult to get my message across when talking to people, and it’s often hard to make or maintain eye contact (though I’ll still be listening). There’s so much effort involved in socialising that being in my own company can feel like a relief by comparison.

In my younger years, when my knowledge of social rules was at its most incomplete, I would frequently do things like interrupt people or misinterpret their moods. I didn’t understand that other people didn’t always feel the same way I did, and in a group situation, I was always certain that my way was best. I’ve since become much more adept at social situations, through a combination of building up my bank of knowledge, and having the right support in school and at home. I often find myself going to the opposite extreme these days, such as by concentrating hard on trying to gauge another person’s feelings, or being unsure about whether to say something in case it’s the wrong thing. There are still qualities of my old thought processes that I’ve carried into adulthood, such as a tendency to take things literally and not always recognise when people are joking. As a child, if my mum said we would be going somewhere “in five minutes”, I would check the nearest clock to make sure we kept to that schedule.

Some people think that people with autism or Asperger’s don’t have empathy. This is 100% untrue. Sometimes, it is difficult for people with Asperger’s to express empathy in a way that neurotypicals can understand. They may not say ‘I love you’ or smile very much, or they may be reluctant to be hugged and kissed. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel it. I, personally, love very deeply. I love my family. I love our dogs. I love my closest friends. I care about other people’s problems and successes. And the last thing I ever want is to hurt anyone’s feelings or create the wrong impression.

Another common symptom of Asperger’s and autism is a preference for routine, and being unsure about change. I certainly like to follow certain schedules; for example, I generally go to work, eat meals and go to bed around the same time each day. I always function best when I have a plan and/or a specific target: both at work and in my spare time, I like to make lists of the things I need to do. This is also why I do my most prolific writing in National Novel Writing Month, and why I usually need to make an outline of my story beforehand.

I can still sometimes get anxious if I’ve got something planned out and my plans are forced to change. This happened the day after I passed my driving test, when I was taking my car out on my own for the first time. I was just doing a circuit around the block, but found there were roadworks stopping me from where I wanted to go. Finding another way was really quite straightforward, yet I still had to stop the car, get my breath, and think about it – and by the time I did get home, I was a nervous wreck. This may have affected my driving in the long-term: I was never quite at ease in that car since.

I focus heavily on the little details of tasks; when I set out to do something, from cooking to driving, I prefer to know exactly how it will turn out. This means I often have to put a lot of thought into novel tasks and decisions, but it can be a strength too: it lends itself well to successful planning and any data-oriented tasks in the workplace.

People with Asperger’s often have a fixation on certain interests, wanting to learn everything they can about these subjects and talk about them whenever possible. With me, it was dinosaurs in primary school, then the Titanic and space travel in high school; as you’ll know if you’ve read this blog, I’m still very fond of these things, but I’ve had a range of other interests since then, from TV shows to podcast subjects. It certainly encourages learning, even as a grown-up!

That’s how Asperger’s affects the way my mind works, but what about the physical and sensory aspects? It’s hard for me to judge whether I am more sensitive to particular sights, noise and smells than other people, since I’ll never be able to see the world through another person’s eyes. I certainly have an aversion to certain noises or smells – I really hate the slurping of tea, which may be why I never drink it myself, and I don’t like the sterile smell of aeroplanes and certain trains – and loud noises can distract me or make me feel uncomfortable. This is why I always prefer quiet environments for social gatherings; a comfortable environment for me is one where I can easily hear the people I’m with, and where I have a reasonable amount of personal space. If I do experience sensory overload, it’s usually because of excessive noise, though I can experience similar stress when too many things are happening around me at once. One time recently, I became anxious from being cornered in a tight hallway with three dogs who were going crazy with excitement over each other.

I feel very sensitive with clothing, particularly clothes with stiff collars or textures that aren’t soft enough; comfortable clothes are important to me. Sensitivity to textures has an effect on the food I like as well: I really don’t like the texture of onions, and if I’m eating something with onions in it, I prefer that they be in pieces too small to be noticeable. As a child, I disliked having my hair sprayed with water for a haircut so much, that for many years, my barber would cut it dry. I don’t mind being touched if it’s someone I know and it’s done gently, but if someone I don’t know touches me unexpectedly, I often want to jerk away for a second.

Today, Asperger Syndrome is still a big part of who I am, and its symptoms still make certain situations more complicated for me. But as an adult, through experience and finding the right environments, I’ve been able to embrace some of the strengths of having Asperger’s, and overcome a lot of the difficulties that affected me more deeply when I was younger – and I hope that I might be able to help other people do the same.

I’m planning to do different posts on how Asperger’s has affected different aspects of my life – e.g. driving, public speaking, approaches to social situations. If you have any questions, or any suggestions for things you’d like me to talk about in future posts, please let me know in the comments!

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The Kegworth Air Disaster

This week has marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Kegworth air disaster, a plane crash on British soil caused by a long chain of mistakes.

At 7:52pm on Sunday 8th January 1989, British Midland Flight 092 – a new Boeing 737-400 – took off from London Heathrow Airport, heading for Belfast, with 118 passengers and 8 crew onboard. The flight proceeded normally until 8:05pm, whereupon there was a loud noise, the plane started vibrating violently, and the smell of smoke entered the cockpit, apparently coming from the cabin. Evidently, something was wrong with an engine – but the plane’s two engines could not be seen from the cockpit. Neither the captain, Kevin Hunt, nor the first officer, David McClelland, had logged many hours flying the new 737-400, so it was hard for them to determine from the updated instrument displays which engine was having problems. However, they knew that on other 737s, the air conditioning to the cabin flowed from the No 2 (right) engine, so the smoke would indicate that the No 2 engine was on fire. The first officer reported to the captain, “It’s the left…it’s the right one.” The pilots shut down the No 2 engine, and the vibrations stopped. With the plane now flying on one engine, they were given clearance to make an emergency landing at East Midlands Airport in Leicestershire.

The plane was on approach to the airport when, abruptly, the No 1 (left) engine failed altogether, leaving the plane unable to do anything but glide. Passing over the village of Kegworth, the pilots tried desperately to stay airborne long enough to reach the runway, which lay on the other side of the M1 motorway – but it was no good. At 8:24pm, the plane’s tail struck the ground and it bounced across the motorway, breaking apart on the far embankment, less than a kilometre from the runway. 39 passengers died at the scene, while another eight subsequently died in hospital; of the 79 survivors (which included all crew members), 74 were seriously injured. Nobody on the road was hurt.

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Had both engines on this brand-new aircraft really failed independently of each other? Investigators soon discovered that in fact, a terrible error had been made: the No 2 engine had been perfectly fine. The plane crashed because the pilots had shut down their good engine, and were flying on the damaged one.

The entire accident had been caused by a combination of factors, which led to new recommendations to improve safety:

  • The initial problem with the No 1 engine had been caused by a fan blade breaking off and damaging other parts of the engine. The break itself was due to metal fatigue; the fan blades of the 737-400’s engines vibrated excessively when spinning at full power and at high altitude. This had not been discovered during testing, as the engines were being upgraded rather than designed from scratch, and so were only tested in a laboratory, not in flight. Subsequently, redesigned engines must always be tested in flight.
  • The pilots had had no simulator training with the 737-400’s instruments, and their lack of familiarity with the new plane led to them being mistaken about the air conditioning; on the 737-400, the air conditioning in the cabin was fed by both engines, not just the No 2. Simulator training for redesigned instrument systems was also made mandatory.
  • The pilots thought they had made the right decision as the vibrations seemed to stop when the No 2 engine was shut down. In fact, this happened because they had disengaged the autothrottle, which had automatically increased the fuel flow to the struggling No 1 engine; the vibrations lessened because once the engine came under manual control, the fuel flow was reduced. However, as the plane approached the airport, the pilots increased throttle to control their descent, which caused the damaged engine to completely fail.
  • Many people in the cabin noticed flames coming out of the left engine, but did not communicate this to the pilots, trusting their judgement even after the captain announced that they had shut down the right engine. Communication between pilots and cabin crew was subsequently improved as part of crew training.
  • More research was done into the brace position and seat integrity after studying the survivors’ injuries from the impact.

Captain Hunt and First Officer McClelland were both dismissed by British Midland following the accident, though McClelland later received a settlement after suing for unfair dismissal.

References:

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Doctor Who – Series 11: Final Thoughts

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In July 2017, it was announced that Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor would be regenerating into a woman, played by Jodie Whittaker. At the time, I wrote a blog post expressing my concerns about changing the gender of a character who has always been male, wondering whether this had only been done for the sake of diversity, and whether the character would feel too different as a result.

As for Chris Chibnall taking over from Steven Moffat as showrunner, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, for all the great episodes that Moffat had produced in the past, he had definitely outstayed his welcome by Series 10 and I was sick to death of the devices he kept using. On the other, the episodes that Chibnall had previously written for Doctor Who had been generally mediocre – easily the best had been Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and it’s hard for any writer to go wrong with a title like that.

But Series 11 is now behind us, and I can personally say that I enjoyed it very much, especially compared to the massive disappointment that was Series 10.

The Stories

In terms of overall quality, Series 11 was much more consistent than the typical Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat-helmed series. Of the ten episodes, I gave seven a score of either 7 or 8, and the lowest score that any episode got was 6. In other words, there wasn’t much that was truly spectacular, but there were no bad episodes either.

It was also surprisingly reserved by Doctor Who standards: there wasn’t much in the way of grand spectacle, and episodes generally felt relatively grounded and gritty; even the necessary sci-fi elements weren’t too flashy. Comedic moments were limited; I admit that I would have liked a bit more fun sometimes. But I was happy to see Chibnall experiment with a new approach as long as the stories were entertaining and the overall concept of Doctor Who wasn’t thrown out of the window, which they were and it wasn’t: we still got the usual ingredients of aliens, monsters, and a variety of adventures through space and time. Meanwhile, after the Davies and Moffat eras, it actually felt like a pleasant change to have each story standing on its own without a series-long arc to keep thinking about (aside from the opening and closing episodes having the same villain, and possibly the ‘Timeless Child’ reference in The Ghost Monument which was never brought up again).

A common complaint about this series was that it was too politically correct and preachy. The historical episodes – Rosa, Demons of the Punjab and The Witchfinders – all had a strong theme of prejudice. The villain of Arachnids in the UK is clearly supposed to mirror Donald Trump.  And the New Year’s special all but stated that UNIT’s activities had been suspended due to Brexit. Some of these were a little too on-the-nose and I can understand why people might be irritated. But honestly, the stories didn’t tend to suffer from any preaching, and I felt that some of the anti-division messages really couldn’t do any harm for today’s audience. The aforementioned historical episodes were among the most compelling of the season, with any alien presence tending to be less interesting or important than the exploration of the people involved; for Series 12, I wouldn’t mind seeing a historical adventure or two in the First Doctor style, featuring no aliens at all.

The Thirteenth Doctor

For all my pre-series concerns about the Thirteenth Doctor, I was delighted to find that Jodie Whittaker nailed it from the word go. The Doctor does still feel like the character we know, with the same wisdom, the same motivations and mostly the same moral code.   But of course, every incarnation of the Doctor has their own unique traits as well; Thirteen, especially when compared to Twelve, is essentially a friendly neighbourhood Doctor. She’s cheerful; she’s energetic; she’s generally mindful of other people’s feelings; she has no difficulty expressing compassion and feelings of the heart; and aside from the occasional selfish lapse, she is a pure hero (or heroine, rather). I found it very easy to warm to Thirteen, and I hope that Whittaker gets the chance to keep up with the average tenure length and stay in the role for at least another two seasons.

Graham, Ryan and Yasmin

The Thirteenth Doctor’s three companions – Team TARDIS, as they were officially labelled – were good, but could have been better. Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill all gave terrific performances; Walsh was the standout, maybe because he’s older and more experienced, or maybe because he was given more challenging emotional scenes. The characters themselves were a likeable, competent bunch, and some of the character development they experienced (i.e. Graham and Ryan’s relationship) was good. But there were still some problems.

As characters, Graham, Ryan and Yasmin rather felt like the series as a whole: there was nothing bad about them, but neither has there been much so far to make them truly memorable in the pantheon of Doctor Who companions. Maybe it’s because there are three of them and despite my initial hopes to the contrary, sometimes it’s hard for everybody to get enough screentime to shine in. And out of the three, it’s Yasmin who suffers the most in this regard. From the beginning, she feels like the odd one out in the trio, given that Graham and Ryan have a family connection and Yasmin is just an acquaintance; if any member of the team is left without enough to do, it’s usually her; and despite two episodes focussing on her and her family, she hasn’t had as much clear character development – her feeling that she wasn’t able to exercise her full potential at her job hasn’t really gone anywhere, for example. Team TARDIS may also suffer a little from having an interchangeable dynamic; the characters work well together, but nobody really has a clearly specialised role. Hopefully some of these issues will be addressed in Series 12, now that Series 11 has done the job of properly introducing the team.

Best and Worst Episodes

01. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (9/10)
02. Demons of the Punjab (8/10)
03. Rosa (8/10)
04. The Tsuranga Conundrum (8/10)
05. Arachnids in the UK (8/10)
06. The Witchfinders (7/10)
07. The Ghost Monument (7/10)
08. The Woman Who Fell To Earth (7/10)
09. Kerblam! (6/10)
10. It Takes You Away (6/10)

Best episode: As I’ve already said, this wasn’t a season for grand spectacle, and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was more low-key than the typical Doctor Who series finale, particularly in the absence of a series-long arc. But it was still a consistently enjoyable adventure with high stakes, excellent usage of the characters, and a proper feel of bringing the season to a close – an excellent all-rounder. It’s a close race with Demons of the Punjab, though, and I have a feeling I might change my mind later on, but this is where I’m at right now.

Worst episode: There were no bad episodes this series, just a couple of relatively slow ones. It was a hard choice between Kerblam! and It Takes You Away, but ultimately Kerblam! had a much better ending, while It Takes You Away’s emotional payoff suffered from being too predictable.

How This Series Compares

Incredibly, judging purely on my average episode score, Series 11 comes in above Series 4 in my ranking.

Series 9 – 7.6
Series 11 – 7.4
Series 4 – 7.1
Series 1 – 7.0
Series 5 – 7.0
Series 8 – 6.9
Series 6 – 6.8
Series 3 – 6.5
Series 7 – 6.5
Series 2 – 6.3
Series 10 – 6.3

Like Series 11, Series 4 had no bad episodes in my opinion (not counting some of the specials that marked the end of David Tennant’s tenure the following year); however, it also had 13 episodes as opposed to 10, which impacts the significance of the mean average, so the comparison is a little uneven. If I were to follow my heart rather than episode scores, I would still say that I liked Series 4 better. Still, that doesn’t change my opinion that Series 11 was a fine series, and I would be feeling optimistic about Series 12 if not for the fact that it’s more than a year away, which makes me worry about how much faith the BBC continues to have in Doctor Who.

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Where No Space Probe Has Gone Before

This week has been a pretty significant one in the history of space exploration, as no less than three different space probes achieved important milestones in their missions.

At 5:33am GMT on 1st January, the New Horizons probe passed within 3500km of a 33km-long object named Ultima Thule (a Latin phrase used historically to describe places beyond the edge of the map) – at 6.5 billion km from Earth, this was the most distant object in the Solar System ever to be encountered by a probe. After New Horizons accomplished the first flyby of Pluto in 2015, astronomers were keen to attempt another encounter with an object in the Kuiper Belt, the area of the Solar System beyond the orbits of the eight planets. As described here by Alex Parker, the search for a suitable target had resulted in the discovery of Ultima Thule – or 2014 MU69 – in 2014. It is of particular interest for being a “Cold Classical” Kuiper Belt object; the fact that the plane of its orbit is similar to those of the planets suggests that it hasn’t been significantly disturbed since the Solar System was first formed, essentially making it a space fossil.

It will now take New Horizons almost two years to send all of its data back across billions of kilometres to Earth, including the best pictures of Ultima Thule. What we have seen so far reveals that Ultima Thule is actually two objects that have combined into one, in a snowman shape – though this had already been deduced by observing exactly how Ultima Thule eclipsed the light of a star that it passed in front of – and that it is a red colour. As for New Horizons, it has enough fuel left for an encounter with one more object as it continues its journey through the Kuiper Belt.

Then, on 3rd January, a Chinese probe named Chang’e 4 made a soft touchdown on the far side of the Moon – something that no lunar lander has ever done before. The obvious challenge of exploring the Moon’s non-Earth-facing side is that from there, a spacecraft cannot directly communicate with Earth. In the days of the Apollo program, geologist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt proposed a manned far-side landing using relay satellites for communication, but the idea was rejected for being both too risky and expensive. Now, China has achieved the feat (albeit with an unmanned spacecraft) using their own relay satellite in a precise orbit. Having touched down in the Von Karman crater in the Moon’s southern hemisphere, and deployed a rover, Chang’e 4 will now explore the geology of the far side; it is also carrying a spectrometer to pick up radio waves from the Sun and elsewhere (on the far side, there will be no interference from Earth), plus some insect and plant specimens.

These two accomplishments were pretty well publicised in the media, but there was also a third probe that made history on 31st December: OSIRIS-REx went into orbit around the asteroid Bennu, the smallest object that a probe has ever orbited. After being launched in September 2016, OSIRIS-REx caught up with Bennu – which follows an elliptical orbit, spending most of its time between Earth and Mars – on 3rd December; as they orbited the Sun together, the probe performed a number of flybys back and forth around the asteroid before making its orbital insertion. As Bennu only has a diameter of around 500m, its gravity is negligible; OSIRIS-REx must orbit about a mile from the asteroid’s centre, and so slowly that it takes 62 hours to complete one revolution. In 2020, the probe will fly down to try and collect a sample from Bennu’s surface, which it will then return to Earth in 2023.

Meanwhile, there’s more news: the Falcon 9 carrying SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft has been rolled out to Launch Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, before its first unmanned test launch – if this mission is successful, SpaceX will be one step closer to sending astronauts to the International Space Station!

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Film reviews: Mary Poppins Returns and The Favourite

Over the Christmas break, I saw two films at the cinema – and they were two very different films, except that they both had female leads, and the performances of those leads were a highlight of both productions.

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Returns

We all know that these days, Disney is devoting a lot of effort to revisiting its old properties, with mixed critical results. Now their latest release is a sequel to Mary Poppins, no less than 54 years after the original classic starring Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke. A few decades have passed since the events of the first film, and the Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), are all grown up, with their parents apparently deceased. Michael, now a widower with three children, is struggling both emotionally and financially; indeed, his house is going to be repossessed by the end of the week, unless he can find a lost certificate which proves that he and Jane own enough shares in their father’s bank to cover the debt. With the family in turmoil, it is the perfect moment for Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to re-enter their lives, descending from the sky, taking Michael’s children on some fantastical adventures, and pointing everyone in the direction they need to go without them having any idea what she did.

Story-wise, the film covers most of the same beats as the original, but it does at least have a different family dynamic to work with: the children have had to grow up and learn to be responsible very quickly, and although Michael is more involved in his children’s lives than his own father originally was with him, he still needs to connect with them on a higher emotional level to heal his wounds. Visually, it’s a very pleasant watch, particularly the underwater sequence where Mary and the children go swimming in a bathtub, and the sequence with 2D-animated animals that follows soon after. While all the actors do a good job, Emily Blunt is the standout; it’s still the same Mary Poppins we know, alternating between cheeriness and a no-nonsense attitude, but it’s also Blunt’s own approach to the character rather than just copying Julie Andrews. (Blunt’s Mary seems to express a little more enthusiasm at times.) I wasn’t too enamoured with the songs, however: apart from the cabaret-style “A Cover is Not The Book”, and the energetic “Turning Turtle” sung by Meryl Streep, they’re all pretty forgettable, and some of the musical sequences went on too long for my liking. Overall, Mary Poppins Returns is agreeable enough, without quite managing to recapture the magic of its predecessor.

Rating: 3.5/5.

The Favourite

The Favourite

This historical film, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is set during the early 18th century and the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). The sickly and ineffectual Queen’s closest companion is Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who both attends to her needs and makes political decisions for her. But then enters Sarah’s impoverished cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who comes to the royal palace looking for employment. Starting as a lowly servant, Abigail gradually ingratiates herself with Anne and begins to displace Sarah in her affections – and of course, Sarah isn’t going to take that lying down.

The Favourite is what you might call an “artsy” film, one of those films that is a long way from being generic or straightforward, and all the more memorable for it. The style of the film meant that I never felt truly comfortable while watching it, and I expect that was the intent. Most of it takes place within the palace, with the outside world seeming far away; we see the characters in the same rooms and corridors over and over – sometimes through a fish-eye lens to make things even more warped – so that the few scenes that take place away from the palace can feel like a relief. The darkened scenes are truly dark, with the candles providing barely any illumination. Dramatic scenes are frequently accompanied by loud, ominous organ music, and there are a couple of scenes with a metronome-like sound effect in the background, which gets louder and louder until it becomes unbearable. Even scenes where the characters are having fun feel disturbing; covered in makeup and sporting powdered wigs, they revel in indulgent frivolity, enjoying such activities as throwing fruit at a dancing naked man. It doesn’t feel like a time and place you would ever wish to visit.

The three main actresses are all superb. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, laid low by various ailments and the loss of her seventeen children, is depressed, child-like and prone to mood swings, but not so clueless that she is totally imperceptive of the rivalry between Sarah and Abigail. Rachel Weisz’s Sarah, much more intelligent and mature, appears to have some real affection for Anne but still readily manipulates her. Emma Stone’s Abigail is easy to sympathise with at first, given how basically everyone around her abuses her, but is gradually exposed as a viper as she strives to get what she wants. Naturally for a period piece, the characters exchange more passive-aggressive remarks than you can shake a stick at.

The Favourite is a film that I probably wouldn’t watch again, but I could appreciate as being a high-quality piece of cinema. Rating: 4/5.

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Doctor Who – New Year’s Day Special 2019: “Resolution”

  • Following our expository introduction, we open in the middle of a ‘romantic comedy’ moment between Lin and Mitch, which makes it pretty obvious that something bad’s about to happen to one or both of them. At least they’re both still alive by the end of the episode, which is more than I expected.
  • That’s a nice little shot of Team TARDIS all watching the cosmic fireworks together.
  • So Sheffield has replaced London and Cardiff as the centre of weird activity in Britain now?
  • Lin, the presumably well-educated archaeologist, upon seeing a horrifying squid-like creature on a wall in a sewer, decides to go right up to it and touch it. Okay.
  • Yep, Chris Chibnall brings back the Daleks for this New Year’s special – and after a whole season of no classic Doctor Who monsters whatsoever, it actually feels quite nice to see them again. Maybe they should continue to use the classic monsters sparingly for a few seasons.
  • The Dalek’s possession of Lin feels like a blatant rip-off of Venom (and it takes a hint from Terminator 2 as well by stealing a police car and uniform), but it still works pretty well; this Dalek is a competent enemy, has a little more personality than the average member of its kind, and puts poor Lin through a lot of torment.
  • The scenes with Ryan’s dad Aaron are interesting in their own way, as we learn a little more about both Ryan and Graham, and Aaron tries to explain away his actions without really defending them. On the other hand, these scenes feel out of place as they contrast too much with everything else that’s going on.
  • I think one slight issue with Team TARDIS is that while Graham, Ryan and Yasmin work well with each other and the Doctor, they don’t have specialised roles – they all just apply themselves to whatever is required, which makes them a bit interchangeable when the action kicks off.
  • Apparently UNIT has been suspended due to “financial disputes” and “funding withdrawal by international partners“. In other words, it’s been killed by Brexit. In fact, I was surprised that none of the characters went so far as to use the B-word. As much as I sympathise, this is the sort of reference to an agenda that I can understand people complaining about – something that’s just a little too pointed. The same goes for the completely random scene later on, when a family reacts with horror at the thought of having a conversation when their Wi-Fi and Netflix go down.
  • I quite like the junkyard Dalek’s look. As new Dalek designs go, it’s certainly much better than Moffat’s colour-coded ones.
  • And so the Dalek is defeated, first by some manhandling reminscent of the classic series, and then by the power of love!
  • The Doctor will return” – yeah, in over a year’s time. How come they could make a 13-episode series every year in the Russell T Davies era, but apparently that’s too much for the BBC now?

I really enjoyed this special; as much as I enjoyed Series 11 and how its style differed from the Davies and Moffat eras, it was still nice to get a simple, exciting adventure with a classic monster again. Rating: 4/5.

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Happy New Year – 2019!

Happy New Year to everybody! So, have you been working on those resolutions?

Some of my own resolutions simply focus on maintaining my best habits from 2018 – for example:

  • I’ve set this year’s reading challenge at 50 books, which I think is high without being unrealistic.
  • I will continue to run, and at least enter another 10K. I’m hoping to try for longer distances – it will depend how I get on.
  • I’m keeping with my current routine of watching a film I haven’t seen before (outside of those I see at the cinema) and a classic Doctor Who adventure on alternating weeks. There are still 38 Classic Who stories I haven’t seen; if I don’t finish them this year, then certainly in 2020.

As for new goals:

  • I will look for ways to reduce my carbon footprint and my usage of plastic, and I also want to make my garden more wildlife-friendly. At a recent work event, I was given a packet of wildflower seeds; I can start by planting those in the spring to attract bees!
  • I want to try checking some species off my bucket list of British wildlife which I haven’t yet seen (e.g. grass snake, basking shark), as well as some which I have technically seen before but not for a long time (e.g. cuckoo, slow worm).
  • I want to blog more about my experiences with having Asperger’s Syndrome this year – perhaps somebody will find it useful. I’ll also be continuing to work on my nature blog and trying out different content there.

I hope you have some great resolutions for this year! I find it helps to treat them like SMART targets: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely.

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My Favourite Things in 2018

In the News

  • The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on 19th May was, if anything, even more of a pleasure to watch than that of William and Kate in 2011. With such features as a very eloquent sermon by American reverend Michael Curry, and a choir singing ‘Stand By Me’, there was a bit more of a light-hearted feel to it. And as my dad said, the British do pomp and ceremony like nobody else.
  • In terms of sports, the Winter Olympics was good fun, with Great Britain winning five medals (though sadly none in the curling). But the obvious highlight was the FIFA World Cup in Russia, in which the England football team reached the semi-finals for only the third time ever, won a penalty shootout for the first time at a World Cup, and saw Harry Kane win the Golden Boot for the most goals scored. After the debacle of Euro 2016, the team exceeded practically everyone’s expectations, and made the country love them again. And England haven’t stopped there: they will be playing in the Nations League semi-finals next year.
  • Watching to see if the InSight lander would safely touch down on Mars on 26th November made for a tense few minutes and a happy conclusion, but easily the space-related highlight of the year was the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket on 6th February. I was so excited watching that, I couldn’t sit still. Just remember: at this very moment, there is a car, with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, orbiting the Sun.

Favourite Books (Fiction)
One thing I’m especially proud of this year is reading or listening to 69 books, well above my target of 45. With the number of books I still want to read, I need to keep this pace up.

10. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (print)
The fourth instalment of the Cormoran Strike series has what is certainly the most complex mystery of the series so far, with so many tangled threads that you can’t imagine how they can possibly all link together, yet Galbraith (or rather, JK Rowling) skilfully brings it all to a satisfactory and unpredictable conclusion. The characters are again handled well, as fleshed out and fascinatingly scarred as ever. If only Rowling could have done such a good job with writing The Crimes of Grindelwald.

09. Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton (print)
This is exactly my kind of book: historically-based (though taking some artistic licence, as the afterword admits) and with a good helping of action. It manages to be both a picture of 19th century palaeontology, based around the fascinating rivalry between Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh (great material for a novel), and a satisfying Wild West adventure into the bargain. A straightforward, easy read.

08. The Beach by Alex Garland (print)
A deep, atmospheric, very readable story, with a compelling narrator and an exploration of just what people are looking for when they go travelling.

07. The Terror by Dan Simmons (audio)
I would recommend this to just about any fan of historical fiction; it brings the setting and the characters to life vividly, as well as having plenty of interesting details. The story also blends what is known historically about Franklin’s lost expedition with a supernatural/horror element, having the crew being hunted by an unknown monster, without seeming too awkward. It’s very grim and atmospheric; you can feel the suffering that the characters go through.

06. The Dark Tower Part III (The Waste Lands) and Part IV (Wizard and Glass) by Stephen King (print)
With the first two books essentially setting the pieces on the board, I liked how there was proper forward movement on the journey in Part III, plus the world-building; Roland’s universe keeps getting more fascinating and mysterious with the details that are revealed. Part IV mostly consists of a flashback to events that took place shortly after Roland became a gunslinger: this story proceeded slowly sometimes, and I wasn’t sure why this was the story that had to be told as opposed to anything else that happened to Roland before the beginning of Book 1, but it was worth it in the end: the ending was one of the most powerful and painful things I’ve read in a while. I intend to get through the last three instalments in 2019.

05. Christine by Stephen King (audio)
This is probably as good a story about a haunted car as it’s possible to write. The segments where the car – the titular Christine – plays the part of the horror-movie monster, coming to life and attacking people, are indeed a bit wacky at first. More compelling is the rest of the story, where we see the gradual effect that the car has on its new owner Arnie, and how events gradually escalate out-of-control, as well as some general observations about teenagers making the transition to adulthood along the way. This was a story that I thought worked especially well in audio format – for example, the slow change in Arnie’s voice as he falls more under the influence of the car.

04. Raptor Red by Robert Bakker (print)
This book, written from a dinosaur’s point of view (specifically a Utahraptor), was a really wonderful read. Bakker puts a lot of detail into the dinosaurs’ behaviour, the biological justification behind it, and the world around them. For most of it, there isn’t a plot as such – it’s just raptors living their lives – but that hardly matters when the content is so interesting. For the same reason, any artistic licence can be forgiven, like perhaps anthropomorphising the animals a little too much (which succeeds in getting the reader more invested). Plus, given that the book was published in 1995, it’s a little out of date now; for one thing, the raptors should have feathers! A must-read for dinosaur fans.

03. Middlemarch by George Eliot (audio)
This book reads like a 19th century soap opera with such a vast web of flawed but still sympathetic characters, and I became more and more engaged and eager to see what would happen next as it went on.

02. The Humans by Matt Haig (audio)
This story, told from the perspective of an alien masquerading as a human, is a brilliant portrait – both funny and sobering – of the good and bad in humanity. You really feel like this is how an advanced alien race would perceive us; specifically, how ridiculous and illogical most of our culture is. I also liked how the main character learned and developed over the course of the story, and his relationships with the humans around him. I feel pleased that I happened to listen to this audiobook within a few months of reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; both books, in different ways, give much food for thought on the human condition.

01. Mythos and Heroes by Stephen Fry (audio)
These two books contain many detailed and wonderful retellings of stories from Greek mythology, some of which I had heard before and some I hadn’t. They even include such information as how the Greek influence has bled into later art and language (e.g. uranium being named after Ouranos, who was imprisoned underground). The narration by the ever-reliable Stephen Fry makes the stories even better. Mythos covers the origins of the mythical Greek world and the beings within it, as well as an assortment of more miscellaneous tales; Heroes, meanwhile, covers the adventures of important individuals like Perseus, Heracles and Theseus. It is strongly implied in Heroes that a third instalment, covering the Trojan War and the Odyssey, is coming – I look forward to it.

Favourite Books (Non-Fiction)
(Honourable mentions: Cuckoos: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies; Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths by Darren Naish)

05. DisneyWar by James B Stewart (audio)
A really detailed and candid look at the astonishingly brutal boardroom politics of Michael Eisner’s tenure at Disney – highly recommended if you enjoy behind-the-scenes stories for how movies and television programmes end up getting made.

04. Cosmos by Carl Sagan (audio)
While the primary focus of this popular science book is astronomy, it covers a wide range of interesting points and questions, from the value of our ability to store knowledge outside our own brains, to just how likely it is that there is life beyond this star system.

03. Choose Yourself by James Altucher (print)
The overall message of this book is about finding success as an entrepreneur – in whatever form that might take – outside of the standard cubicle-based corporation jobs. But the advice given (and accompanying examples) can be applied in all sorts of ways and fields, and I think just about anyone who reads this book will find something that they can get hold of to improve their wellbeing and figure out what they can contribute to the world. This is also helped by Altucher’s engaging, conversational writing style. While I didn’t agree with everything he said (though some points I appreciated more after thinking about), this is definitely one of the better self-help books I’ve read.

02. The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke (print)
This is a really wonderful popular science book which explores both historic and more recent misconceptions about a range of intriguing and mysterious animals, from eels to frogs to pandas. I learned a great deal of new information from it, and it frequently made me chuckle too. I certainly wouldn’t mind a sequel which covers even more misunderstood species!

01. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (print)
This book has so many excellent explanations of just how humans have turned out the way they are today, and raises lots of interesting ideas that are ultimately basic logic you just never think about – like the fact that companies only exist because we say they do, and the use and exchange of money is based on trust. Plus I now understand capitalism much better than I ever did before.

Favourite Films Watched In The Cinema
(Honourable mentions: Darkest Hour, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War)

05. Incredibles 2
A worthy sequel to one of Pixar’s best films.

04. Ralph Breaks The Internet
Containing as much fun and heart as Disney can deliver, this one gets the edge over Incredibles 2 by actually improving upon the first film (and not having a predictable twist villain).

03. Ready Player One
This film is enjoyable indulgence, and while it does deviate from the book in many ways, that generally serves to make the story work better in this particular medium.

02. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
By far the best Spider-Man film since Spider-Man 2, with a wonderful visual style, and a host of characters with emotional journeys that it’s easy to get invested in.

01. First Man
What could have been a generic, straightforward Neil Armstrong biopic instead has a great deal of effort put into it, and a style all of its own. It’s an intense experience that places you right in the pilot’s seat, and it left me feeling that if I were a filmmaker, I’d like to make something along those lines.

Favourite Films Watched Outside The Cinema (That I Hadn’t Seen Before)
10. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
09. Capricorn One (1978)
08. The Disaster Artist (2017)
07. The Invisible Man (1933)
06. The Lodger (1927)
05. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
04. Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
03. The Prestige (2006)
02. The Blues Brothers (1980)
01. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Favourite Television Programmes
While I’m still not a big television watcher, there were some things I especially enjoyed.

  • As well as Season 11 of Doctor Who (which I’ll talk about in more detail after New Year’s Day), there was Season 5 of Agents of SHIELD – while I thought Season 4 got off to a slow start then became really good, this one was great all the way through. It was a tense and often traumatic season, with the characters first going forward in time to a future where Earth has been destroyed, then returning to the present and trying to prevent that future from happening, without knowing exactly how it happened in the first place.
  • BBC gave us another great wildlife documentary narrated by David Attenborough, Dynasties, presenting the struggles of various animals – chimpanzee, emperor penguin, lion, painted wolf and tiger – on a personal level as they try to preserve their bloodline, whether by clinging to their territory and status or just ensuring the next generation reaches adulthood. My mum and I have also been watching a lot of Snakes in the City, a National Geographic documentary covering the work of Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett, snake-catchers in Durban, South Africa.
  • American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace wasn’t praised by everybody, but I liked it a lot. It isn’t so much Gianni Versace’s story as that of his killer, Andrew Cunanan (played superbly by Darren Criss), portrayed as a charismatic but fascinatingly disagreeable human being who lies compulsively and believes he is entitled to the best of everything. After opening with Versace’s murder, the series runs chronologically backwards until the final episode, covering Cunanan’s life bit by bit, which I felt served to make it more interesting as a more complete picture of him is built up.
  • Killing Eve is a drama series about a Russian assassin named Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), the MI5 officer tasked with tracking her down. While it’s certainly thrilling and darkly humorous, the complex relationship between the two main characters is what really makes this show, as Eve becomes increasingly obsessed with trying to understand and capture Villanelle, who in turn wants to make friends with Eve in her own twisted way. I’m eagerly awaiting the second series.

Favourite Podcasts
Finally, I thought I should mention some of my favourite podcasts that I’ve been listening to regularly; I somehow neglected to do this last year even though that was when I got properly into listening to podcasts.

  • Herpetological Highlights covers recent scientific studies of reptiles and amphibians in a fun and casual way, with each fortnightly episode focussing on a particular topic.
  • The Secret History of Hollywood covers stories about the olden days of Hollywood, from Universal Studios’s horror movies, to the career of Alfred Hitchcock, to the history of Warner Bros. Full of interesting anecdotes, it’s wonderfully produced and narrated by Adam Roche. Most of the series are currently available as audio shows on Audible.
  • The Trail Went Cold is a true crime podcast, where the producer Robin Warder first presents details of unsolved crimes and disappearances, then presents his own theories and logical deductions as to what may have happened.
  • Casefile is another well-produced true crime podcast, going into detail on crimes both solved and unsolved.
  • I’ve recently started getting into 1800 Seconds on Autism, where autistic hosts Jamie Knight and Robyn Steward discuss different aspects of this subject.

Are there any books, films, TV series, podcasts or news items you’ve particularly enjoyed this year? Let me know in the comments!

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Looking Back on 2018

We are now approaching the end of 2018 – and I’ve personally found it to be a stimulating year where I was able to do all sorts of interesting things.

Of my fourteen New Year’s resolutions, I have completed or stuck to ten – these included meeting my reading goals, going on another volunteer trip overseas, expanding my computer skills, and trying to do more scicomm; to that latter end, I’ve been sharing more scientific tweets on Twitter, and created a new blog to focus on zoology and experiences in the natural world. A few of my resolutions ended up mutating a little or going in unexpected directions; for example, I wanted to create more opportunities to get out and socialise, and at the moment, a lot of that comes from joining a local running club which was only formed a few months ago.

This year, I’ve also been paying more attention to how my mind works and what motivates me most effectively, as well as re-thinking what I want to achieve right now and what I believe I can feasibly do. In the last month or so, a lot of this has come from reading James Altucher’s book Choose Yourself, which I strongly recommend. Here are some of the things I’ve taken away from this year which I want to carry into 2019.

  • When I set myself a goal, it has to be something I really want (as well as appreciating why I want it), not something I have to force myself to do. Lifestyle changes have worked best when I ease into them on my own terms, and persisted for so long that they become the norm. A good example for me has been eating more vegetarian meals each week; more recently, I’ve also been trying to cut beef out of my diet, since beef has a bigger carbon footprint than other types of meat.
  • When you have a reason to be truly interested in a subject, even one you might not have paid much attention to before, learning more about it comes naturally. I’ve never been especially invested in politics, but I’ve been gradually absorbing more relevant information while following the progress (or lack thereof) of Brexit and whether there is any chance of it not happening in the end.
  • Following more science communicators on social media has also been a great source of knowledge, particularly regarding climate change. That’s the thing about social media: you get out of it as much as you put in.
  • You need to accept and embrace how your own mind works in order to use it most effectively. For example, I’ve accepted this year that I function best concentrating on one thing at once, so if I’m listening to a podcast whilst working on the computer, I’m not going to take it all in. Also, for whatever reason, I absorb non-fiction books better when they’re in print than when they’re audiobooks, so I’m going to be sticking to audio-novels in 2019 while reading more non-fiction in printed format.
  • There are so many things I want to do and so little time that I need to be selective about what I devote my time to. I’ve recently been participating in a book club but I’m not sure it’s for me; the books are usually selected from the Richard & Judy Book Club and I don’t tend to especially like them, and there are already too many books that I know I want to read.
  • More than in 2017, I’ve been finding real pleasure in exercise and keeping my physical body in good shape. The mental rewards of this are really worth it; I’m certain that it has contributed – among other things – to me being generally happier right now than I was two years ago.

Sometimes, looking at the news this year, it’s been feeling like the world is going backwards. The British government is pushing ahead with Brexit despite all the indications that it’s going to turn out poorly, insisting it’s “the will of the people” (or very slightly more than half of them) because apparently there’s no way the people might have changed their minds after two years of being presented with more complete information. Meanwhile, biodiversity continues to fall and the climate change situation continues to worsen, with various examples of extreme weather around the world, and not enough currently being done to prevent a rise in global temperatures of more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade: Brazil alone have elected a new president who wants to increase agricultural usage of Amazon rainforest land.

There are a lot of problems in the world, but there’s no chance at all of things getting better if you just give up and accept it. So that’s one of my aims going into 2019: to continue to expand my knowledge, and think about what kind of contributions I can make to the world, however small they may be.

I will be going over my favourite books, films, etc of 2018 in a later blog post.

What have you achieved in 2018? Are there any particular life lessons you will be taking into 2019? Let me know in the comments!

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