Thursday, September 29, 2022

Don't get attached to the droids

There's a trope in recent Star Wars productions of treating droid characters as expendable. Spoilers follow...

Still made it as an action figure

The modern trend of killing off droids started with Rogue One when K-2SO died a heroic death fending off storm troopers. K-2SO provided some much needed comic relief in a film that explicitly aimed for bleakness so his demise was a sad moment in the story.

Admittedly the whole point of Rogue One was that just about everybody in the film died so K-2SO wasn't particularly singled out, even though he was shot to bits with multiple blasts before any of the other main rebel protagonists were killed. 

Then we had Solo, which I enjoyed as a movie even though it's rare to find anyone else who liked it. In Solo, Lando Calrissian has a droid called L3-37 (Leet) who has all of the best lines and accidentally launches a robot uprising. Then L3-37 gets destroyed although, weirdly, its droid consciousness gets uploaded into the Millennium Falcon.

In the first season of The Mandalorian, the repaired assassin droid IG-11 is programmed to be nanny protector of Grogu (the Child). After shooting through a batallion of Imperial soldiers, IG-11 blows itself up to enable the Mandalorian and companions to escape the clutches of Moff Gideon.

And in the recent Obi-Wan Kenobi series, there is, briefly, a loading robot that has joined the nascent Rebellion called NED-B. The interesting aspect to that is the way it is presented as being NED-B's choice to join the movement. NED-B is destroyed while shielding a fellow rebel from gunfire.

In the first episode of Andor, we met a new droid called B2EMO. 

I am very worried for the safety of this droid! I doubt it will survive the series.

It's not as if human characters in Star Wars shows or films don't die sacrificial deaths - that started with Obi-Wan Kenobi in the very first movie. But when there is just one droid character in the main cast and that droid character is killed off almost every single time it begins to feel like they are considered more expendable.

Of course, there are other limitations in play. Prequel films and shows are always going to have characters that have to survive. There is no suspense when Obi-Wan and Princess Leia are on the run from Imperial Inquisitors. We know they will survive. Similarly in Solo, we know that Han, Chewie and Lando make it through whatever shenanigans happen, so the odds were always stacked against L3-37. 

Prequels also have to deal with the reverse problem as well, and provide a reason why certain characters don't appear later on in the story arc. One of the many franchise loopholes that Rogue One tried to clear up was the removal of Saw Guerrara from the wider story. He was introduced in the Clone Wars series and appeared in the Rebels series, but wasn't in the ranks of the Rebel Alliance in the Original Trilogy. So that loose end got tidied up.

A few people, who take things more seriously than perhaps they should, have questioned the exploitation of sentient machines in the Star Wars universe. The use of 'restraining bolts' and wiping droid memories show a lack of respect for droids even if they seem capable of emotions like fear, loyalty, bravery, pleasure (in receiving an oil bath) and so on. They are able to feel pain - as the torture chamber in Jabba's palace illustrates. But even though they are intelligent and have feelings, they are denied any rights or self-determination - something that L3-37 protests about. 

Droid rights probably isn't something that's on the agenda of Star Wars scriptwriters. B2EMO might yet be saved by its cuteness - like R2-D2 and BB-8 who are indestructible by droid standards. However, I'd advise not getting too attached given the current habit of treating droids as expendable characters.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Wythnos mewn Gogledd (a week in the North)

Last week, Cathy and I had a lovely week in North Wales. We were based in Caernarfon, right next to the castle. 

When I say, next to the castle, this was the view from the table where we had breakfast each morning.

Of course we did have a look around the castle. There were some displays relating to the investiture of Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969. That was suddenly very relevant as we were in the national week of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, which meant Charles was now King. I predict a lot of those displays will be updated soon.

In the meantime, the flags were flying at half mast. I noticed the Welsh flag was flying slightly higher than the Union flag. 

The large round dais was installed in 1969 for the Investiture. 

Caernarfon castle has lots of corridors, walkways and winding stairs to explore.

That wasn't the only castle we visited. We also went to Conwy, which I don't remember doing before. We climbed every tower in the castle and enjoyed great views of the estuary and the town.

What else is North Wales famous for? Well, it also has mountains. We were able to see the Snowdon horseshoe while we ate a picnic lunch one day, although Snowdon itself was being shy and hiding in the cloud.

It's also famous for trains. We were staying very near the Northern terminus of the Welsh Highland Railway and saw the engine steaming up on a few mornings. 

The loco on the Welsh Highland Railway was built in Belgium and used in South Africa before ending up in Wales. However, the diddy steam engine used on the Llanberis Lake Railway was used in the slate quarries during its working life. It's about the size of a Landrover and just too cute! 

The engine was steaming up outside the shed, next to a blue diesel locomotive that also had some personality. 

We saw the Snowdon Mountain Railway train depart from Llanberis as well, but that was being pushed up the mountain by a diesel engine rather than the steam engine, so I'm not including a photo of that.

We decided to have a day on Anglesey - here's a picture of Anglesey and Puffin Island taken on the way back from Conwy.

Our first stop on Anglesey was Oriel Mon, a great little art gallery and museum which houses an exhibition in honour of Welsh artist Kyffin Williams. There's a statue outside - time for a celebrity selfie!

Oriel Mon also has a selection of artworks by Charles Tunnicliffe, a wildlife artist whose work featured on everything from nature books to those collectible cards that used to be in boxes of tea. 

We drove around the island looking at a few beaches before ending up in Beaumaris for a short look around the town. We did Beaumaris castle on a previous trip and we were a bit castled out after Conwy and Caernarfon so we didn't visit it again this time. 

On the final day of our holiday we went into Bangor and visited Bangor Pier which has just won 'Pier of the Year'. Walking out on the pier took us about halfway back to Anglesey. 

The views along the Menai Strait were fantastic, but our favourite discovery was Dinas Dinlle beach, which we went back to a few times during the course of the week. The views here down to the sharp coastal mountains of the Northern edge of the Llyn Peninsular and out to the horizon beyond the Western edge of Anglesey are all captured in this panoramic shot. 

Dinas Dinlle is a rocky beach with an astounding array of different pebbles. (Some of them might have travelled home with us!) We drove the long way back into Caernarfon, along the edge of the tidal reaches of the Menai Strait covered in flocks of birds including egrets, sandpipers, oystercatchers, herons and curlews. 

It was a very full week, with castles, steam trains, mountains and beaches, and yet it feels like there was still a lot more to see. Maybe next time!

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Movie review - DC League of Superpets

I went with some nieces and a nephew to watch another comic book movie at the weekend. This time it was animated and focused on the DC Superpets, a spin-off in the DC comics franchise. Mild spoilers follow the picture of the film poster. 

The film centres on Krypto, Superman's super-powered dog, and various other animals from a local rescue shelter who receive superpowers from a fragment of orange kryptonite. They have to work together to thwart the evil scheme of a maniacal guinea pig who had been experimented on by Lex Luthor. It has a strong voice cast, including Dwayne Johnson as Krypto and Kevin Hart as Ace, a dog from the shelter who will end up being Batdog. 

Despite the promising premise, the film suffered from the same problems as pretty much all the other DC movies that have been released. The plotting was sedate. There were scenes and battles that did not add anything to the overall plot and just slowed things down. The final resolution was the same as every other DC film I've seen - a big punch up. (In fairness, this is a problem for almost every comic book movie.)

There were some funny jokes like the dogs playing with squeaky toys of superheroes. There were humorous references to other superhero franchises, like Superman ironing a shirt with his laser vision and toying with the idea of calling himself Iron Man.  I laughed at the recording of Krypto's father that always started the same way and Krypto saying he needed a skip intro button. And I was very amused by the character of a kitten given superpowers who became a living weapon as a result.

However, some scripting choices were a bit off. Merton the sweary tortoise got bleeped on a couple of occasions instead of cutting away or substituting other words as happens in most animated movies. Maybe the studio thought it was in keeping with DC's attempt to be the 'edgy' comic book franchise. I don't think any of the kids watching with us picked up on it, but it felt clunky. 

Another misstep was the production team's assumption that the audience would know who everyone was, especially when human superheroes turned up. I got some of the references and inside jokes, and I imagine DC super-nerds would get more. However, I don't think the jokes are so good it is worth investing the time and effort to become a DC super-nerd just to get the references. 

There were also scenes that play on Batman's origin story and take the mickey out of the darkness in the Dark Knight. But that road has already been well trodden in The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie (reviewed here). The jokes at Batman's expense in Superpets felt hackneyed as a result, so even this self-deprecation by the franchise felt stale.

Overall, I enjoyed the film and don't regret going to see it. But my main impression is that even in an animated film which is supposed to be aimed at children and therefore a bit silly, the DC franchise can't escape from its own drawbacks. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Snack(s) of the Month - Rootles & Crackzels

A few snacks this month. Starting off with some biscuits that are probably less healthy than they look. They are called 'Rootles' and are made with root vegetables. These were reduced in the supermarket so I thought I would give them a try.

There were two types available, so I bought both packets. One was made with carrots and the other was made with beetroot.

There are three biscuits in each packet.

They had an odd consistency, with the biscuit being slightly gritty. Cathy said they reminded her of Grape Nuts breakfast cereal. The chocolate coating was thin and brought a bit more sweetness to the biscuits. 

The vegetables give the colour of the biscuit a slight tinge. I couldn't really taste the vegetables so if you aren't keen on the taste of vegetables, don't worry, you'll be fine. 

Cathy bought me the other snack I'm blogging about this month. I have tried a few different types of pretzel snack like this and have no hesitation saying these are the best.

The pretzel pieces are crunchy and the jalapeno flavouring is quite powerful, with a warm spicy kick that lingers. 

There is a decent amount in the packet, which means a packet will last a length of time if settling in for the evening on the sofa. (I tested this.)

The pretzel pieces were very munchable, and given the choice between Crackzels and Rootles, it would be Crackzels again for me. 

Monday, September 19, 2022

A tale of two funerals

On Saturday night Cathy and I watched a livestreamed memorial service for Cathy's first cousin once removed, Andrew. Personally, I had never met Andrew as he moved to another continent before I ever met Cathy. However, through the service streamed from Vancouver, I felt I got to know him. 

The tributes from Andrew's daughter, his friends and colleagues in Christian ministries, were warm and moving and shared some of the character and keen interests of Andrew as a person. 

Today we watched the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. There was a contrast. Not just in the scale, but in the content.

In the Archbishop of Canterbury's tribute, he quoted some of the statements the Queen made in various public speeches. But, as in life, so also in death, it was very much repeating what was already known publicly. There were no anecdotes or accounts of how people asked for advice. It was strangely impersonal, following the identikit pattern of the funeral service book. Her name was said in the commissioning at the end, and that was about it. 

In some ways I feel sorry for the Queen's family, with their personal loss and grief being co-opted by so many people and made inescapable. The expectations of a State Funeral outweighing any wish to express their own loss and their own love. I hope for them they get some sort of space for that at the interment or in a private memorial.

The contrast between the two services has made me think that tributes from those who knew us and loved us are more valuable than any level of pageantry. I know which one felt more meaningful. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

End of the EIIR era

While there has been an undercurrent in news reports for a little while regarding the health of Queen Elizabeth II, there was an unexpected suddenness in events last Thursday. The news cycle focused on the Queen under the care of doctors in Balmoral, it was revealed family members were travelling to see her, and then came the announcement that she had passed away, all in the space of an afternoon. 

This news rather eclipsed the installation of a new Prime Minister a few days earlier. That saga which started months ago had finally concluded with Liz Truss winning more votes from Conservative Party members - meaning that there was briefly a Monarch and a Prime Minister with the same first name. One of the Queen's last public appearances was welcoming the new Liz.

Events since the announcement of the Queen's death have unfolded quickly. The new king proclaimed at events around the country, a new Prince and Princess of Wales entitled, plans for a funeral procession and state funeral bank holiday announced. The "lucky unlucky" politics students I envied back in July have even more big political happenings to assimilate into their studies. 

But I feel like I am out of step with a lot of people right now, in this period of mandatory mourning presented as a time of unstinting sorrow by the BBC without any 'balance' or dissenting voices. (It's not like climate change or Brexit, when the state broadcaster will leave no rock unturned to find a voice to present the other side.)

Maybe my dislocation from the mainstream narrative is because I don't like being told how I should be feeling about things. It's inescapable. Mournful music played in fast food restaurants. Messages of condolences on websites and in apps. Endless rolling coverage and talking heads on TV. The subtext is very clear - you must feel sad; sadness is the only acceptable emotion. 

I have no doubt that the people who are posting about their sadness on social media, or are texting in their grief to radio stations, genuinely feel that way. While everyone knew the Queen was not going to live forever, this has been sudden, unexpected, a shock. It is a massive change to a key element of the societal background in an afternoon. For most of us - anyone under 70 - the Queen has been queen for all our lives. Change like that, beyond our control, provokes a sense of loss, which feels like grief. 

There is a theory that our culture is still very much 'keep calm and carry on', bear your burdens in silence, maintain a stiff upper lip, recognise that 'it could be worse', and so on. Even if we don't feel that way on the inside, we might project that to the outside. Then along comes a moment when we have permission to actually feel things, and all that grief comes out. It may even be easier to grieve for a public figure like the Queen, instead of processing the private grief for family members and beloved friends that is harder to face and deal with. 

That might explain some of the grief-talk. It's also true that lots of people admired and liked the Queen, or at least their projection of her. Because, really, nobody outside a very small circle of people actually knew her. What people like is a version of the Queen they carry in their own heads - a caring, decent human being who wanted to do the right thing, considered her regal duties as an act of service, and was friends with Paddington Bear. (And that seems to have been an image the Queen encouraged.)

People go as far as asserting that the Queen had a deep 'personal' Christian faith. The people claiming this seem certain, but it's impossible to know what anybody really believes about anything, let alone how deep their piety goes. Ultimately the only people who know the strength of a person's religious faith are the believer and their god, and I have doubts about how much the latter knows. 

In the last couple of days I have been really struck by this image, which sums up where we are as a country. (Borrowed from the artist Dayvid. who posted it on Twitter)

Image of a beggar sitting below an illuminated screen with a picture of the Queen in memorium

That picture caused me to stop because for all the nice versions of the Queen people have in their heads, she was still the monarch - pretty much the absolute representation of the institutionalised inequality and inequity that is baked into our society. One reason why I have been a republican for most of my adult life is because I see no reason why one person should be memorialised on an illuminated sign and another person be left to beg next to that sign.

However, now is apparently not the time for questioning privilege. People who have protested mildly at various ceremonies around the country have been arrested - one man in Oxford on his way home from church was arrested for just asking who elected the new king. He was later de-arrested because asking questions isn't actually a crime... yet. Other people have been threatened with arrest for holding up signs saying 'Not my king', or for holding blank pieces of card that they could write a protest sign on. 

We are mandated to grieve, not question.

But now is the best time to ask questions - and that is precisely why things are moving so quickly. That's why King Charles was proclaimed in key cities in the United Kingdom within 72 hours. That's why Prince William had the title Prince of Wales conferred on him so rapidly. 

This haste, while the rest of the country is pausing activities to mourn, is about acting fast to retain privilege. There can't be a gap in the accession, because if there was a brief window of time when we didn't have a monarch... people might get ideas that maybe we don't need a monarch at all. 

Sunday, September 04, 2022

August 2022 - squeezing the most out of summer

August was a very full month. I've already blogged about our week on holiday in Shropshire and our trip to the Shrewsbury Flower Show. It was also a 'decamonth' of football matches and I had time to see some model trains as well. 

The Cardiff Model Railway Exhibition was on the weekend after we got back from our week in the Shire. It was held in the ice rink around the corner from our house. There were an array of impressive model railway layouts and other stands there. As is usually the case with model railway exhibitions, there was a mix of detailed attempts to recreate real life in miniature, along with more whimsical 'fun' layouts.

However my favourite trains were the miniature live steam engines that were just running around a simple circle at the back of the room. There was a clever use of foreshortened scenery to make it look interesting, and something for the kids as well!

Speaking of 'for the kids', the new series of Bluey is now on Disney Plus. Cathy and I have got really into this lovely cartoon show. She went into town one day and brought me back a present.

(I posted this on Facebook in a group about Bluey and got hundred of likes and comments from other grown ups all saying "WHERE CAN I GET THIS?!?")

As I mentioned, on the football front, August was a 'Decamonth'. I went to ten games. I also had a small article published in When Saturday Comes. It's the September issue and will still be in the shops if you want to go and read it.

The article provoked some discussion among Barry Town fans as to whether that was the right shirt or the player named in the article. I did explain that the image choice was an editorial decision!

My footballing adventures began right at the start of August with a trip to the Port Talbot sea-side to watch Afan Lido v Barry Town. The ground is so close to the beach there were little piles of windblown sand in almost every nook and corner. 

The Barry goalkeeper didn't have much to do as Barry won 4-1 to get their first points in the JD Cymru South this season. 

I also saw my first ever 4-4 draw, at Cardiff Draconians v Brecon Corries in the second qualifying round of the Welsh Cup. The Dracs were winning 4-2 with only a few minutes to go, then conceded two goals. There was no extra time - it went straight to penalties. Almost inevitably, the Dracs lost the penalty shootout 8-9. It was very disappointing for them. 

I went to two Shrewsbury Town games during our week in Shropshire, and added a third before the end of the month. On Bank Holiday Saturday I drove to Bristol and met Ken, a family friend who lives in Bristol, for Shrewsbury's game at Bristol Rovers.

Ken is a season ticket holder at Aston Villa but he didn't mind slumming it with me in League One for the day. It was the first time I'd been to watch Shrewsbury play at the Memorial Ground since leap day in 2020. It's an easy away day for me, and this was the fifth time I'd been to a game there since 2017. It was also the tenth time I've seen Bristol Rovers, so when I checked in on Futbology I got a badge.

I also went to my first two Grange Albion games of the season, sadly both defeats. The second game was on Bank Holiday Monday at the ostentatiously named Ocean Park Arena.

Albion were playing Clwb Cymric, a Welsh-speaking team who have been on the rise recently. This game was the last one on the South Wales Groundhop, which meant there was a programme available. It's the first Grange Albion game I've been to with a programme!

I acquired a few baseball cards in the course of the month, including a set that arrived in a tube! 

I will be blogging about them on my baseball card blog sometime soon.

And as a final photo from the month - here's one from the honey tent at the Shrewsbury Flower Show. I don't know why I didn't include this in my round up, because it really amused me.