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February 2021

Is The Martian the greatest film
ever made?

No, of course it isn’t – that’s clearly a clickbait title. The whole 'greatest film ever made' thing is a daft construct, loaded with all kinds of personal assumptions that are bound to be informed by who you are and what cultures you identify with. Is it even the best 2010s movie about an astronaut who is stranded in space after an accident and is trying to make their way home? Not if you prefer Gravity. (In fact, if you include Interstellar you might not even consider it the best 2010s movie yada yada that has Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain in it.) Having said all that, though, for right now, in February 2021…

On 18 February at 8:55pm UTC, the Perseverance Rover (adorably nicknamed Percy) landed successfully on Mars, and to celebrate I decided to crack out The Martian film. Because, unlike those other space films, it’s not so much about the dangers of space per se. It’s more about the mentality you need to be an astronaut. It’s about the training, and the careful selection based on personality type, that allows someone to continue to function when something has gone catastrophically wrong in an incredibly hostile environment.

And… I’ve been extremely fortunate in so many ways thorough this pandemic. In being able to get a job. In not (yet) getting COVID-19. But finally, in February, the ol’ mental health side of things started to crack a bit.

And there were a number of factors at play, but one of the key ones was the weather. After the flooding (as I mentioned in December) and then some seriously chilly temperatures, there was yet more rain. And one day I decided I wouldn’t go out and get my exercise because the weather was so miserable. And then I decided that the next day too. And the next day. Eventually I was getting up in the morning, sitting behind a desk, going to get a meal or go to the bathroom, going back behind the desk, and then going to bed.

Now, I am extremely old. I am about as old as it gets. People go on about the Big Bang and the birth of the universe, but I remember the previous universe. There was no light other than infrared, and oxygen was basically an inert gas – seriously, kids today don’t know how lucky they have it.

Anyway, I’ve done the Mental Health dance many times over the years: the dance in which I notice I’ve let the basics of good sleeping, good eating and good exercise slip. So I’m very used to taking a good hard look at my routine and seeing where things need to be tightened up.

But I’ve also taken to digging out The Martian in times like this, because I find the mindset of the protagonist to be a great inspiration. As I will go on to explain in a bit.

But first, a few of the usual monthly recommendations, preceded by yet more TikTok nonsense.

New Music This Month (... on TikTok)

Yeah, it's still going. I mean, it's so easy to actually make music stuff and get it out there, so I've been doing quite a bit of it. There's some classic soft rock balladeering, some lip-synching, some method acting with props.

Basically, this is how I've been wasting time in 2021.

About 10 minutes of daft but short TikTok clips

Upcoming Events

Friday 12th March

This month, incidentally, is pretty much the first anniversary of the pandemic!

These are online versions of the Bastard English Session which has haunted the Isis Farmhouse Pub in Oxford for over a decade now.

You simply click this:

And then enter the password, which is:

  • bitshowy

And a reminder of the New (well, now Old) Bastard Protocol:

  1. If you’re performing, you’ll need to change your Zoom settings to ‘Use Original Sound’.
  2. It’s a one-at-a-time performing thing, and I have to mute everyone during each performance (because of audio lag) (and also, because I get an enormous kick out of it).
  3. Feel free to use the Chat function throughout!
  4. Also, I find all Zoom calls weirdly tiring, so feel free to hide your video, and wander in and out.

All my recorded music thus far...

I mention this each time now, but it occurs to me that, since I've stripped the newsletter format down for lockdown, I don't actually have any links to the website. So I thought I might as well just chuck this in here.

Click on the image above for a link to my (now... kinda old) music. (I mean, even the stuff that wasn't old when I recorded it is now kinda old.)

Hope you enjoy! And now, here are this month's recommendations:


Perseverance Rover’s Descent and Touchdown on Mars (Official NASA Video)

It doesn’t look that amazing until I remember that this is not a movie.

This is like the moon landing, only much further away, and… I think sent in 4K digital resolution? Which is pretty much cinema quality.

Which is insane.


'I asked an AI for video ideas, and they were actually good'

I can't remember if I've ever recommended a Tom Scott video in one of these recommendations before, but if you don't know who he is then think of a YouTube version of Brian Cox crossed with Michael Palin, with a bit of David Attenborough thrown in.

20 years ago the BBC would have snapped him up to make very dry educational mini-documentaries for the Learning Zone, shown at nothing in the morning. Now he makes scientific/historical/educational videos about whatever he wants, to an adoring worldwide audience.

He's famous enough in YouTubeLand to be parodied (type 'Tom Scott parody' into YouTube to see what I mean).

Anyway, this episode is fascinating and a bit terrifying. He starts by saying that he's pretty much run out of ideas, so he asked an artificial intelligence company to generate some classic Tom Scott video ideas.

And... they were eerily accurate.


Dealing with the death of a teammate // DOCTOR Covid-19 Vlog #31

I've recommended Dr Ed Hope's YouTube vlog a number of times during the pandemic, as a window into how the NHS is coping.

This is, by his own account, the hardest video he has had to make, as he talks about the death from COVID-19 of one of his colleagues.


'Can you Fight in a Corset? (I Tried It)'

On a lighter note, my new favourite YouTuber is Jill Bearup: a stage fight performer who analyses fight scenes in movies and television.

In this episode she asks: can a whale-bone corset stop a knife?

It's a lot of fun.

Dear Diary...

"Help is only 140 Million Miles away..."

Okay, let’s start with a quick plot synopsis, and break down why for me this is the film for February 2021.

Astronauts on a Mars mission, fleeing a storm, have to abort and leave the planet, but they leave one behind. Botanist and mechanical engineer Mark Watney, finding that (as the movie tagline puts it) “help is only 140 million miles away”, has to survive long enough for NASA to rescue him, if they even can.

The Perseverance Rover reminded me about this film, but the reason why I really wanted to crack this film out again was because I felt like it was about someone in a similar situation to me, but much much worse. I could watch this and feel like "Okay, at least if I step outside my current home I won't sort of implode."

Now, as I came to write this I found some of the phrases came a little too easily, and I started to think w…wwwaaaaait… I’ve already written about The Martian somewhere before, haven’t I?

Indeed I have.

Back in the previous universe I used to write a monthly article for a website called Eulogize This.

Here’s some of what I wrote about the novel that the movie is based on…

What makes this a cut above so much mainstream science fiction is that this is meticulously researched. Really, the detail is incredible. Despite never having directly asked anyone at NASA for input, Andy Weir’s book is considered accurate enough in its depiction of the space agency and its challenges for their website to describe it as “a technically accurate sci-fi” in which “tons of research and constant double-checking of math had to be done”, adding that doing so “exposed flaws in the protagonist’s plans, leading to a much more interesting story than if real-world physics and math have been hand-waved”. Even Bowie-singing Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is a fan.

And if the thought of a 369 page book charting the daily struggles of a man abandoned alone on a faraway planet sounds unbelievably bleak, it really isn’t. Quite the opposite. Part of this is because Weir has paid attention to one crucial aspect of science fact that so many similar stories ignore: the type of people who get to become astronauts. This is something Hadfield particularly sings the praises of on, saying that most space fiction fails to appreciate the level of trust and respect, not to mention competency, that needs to be in place before an astronaut is selected. Those movies where the crew are all bickering about pointless little things right from the beginning? They wouldn’t have even got selected for ground crew.

The Martian is actually an oddly feel-good book, because even though terrifying and seemingly impossible problems get thrown constantly at the hero, Mark Watney, he methodically works through them, finds solutions, and records them in his journal. And he does it with a sense of humour (something that Matt Damon, who plays him in the movie, nails to perfection).

And this forms the beating heart of the story. Watney is a survivor, and although he often gets overwhelmed by despair at his situation, he always manages to bounce back, and then see the funny side. A good deal of the book is taken up with his mock-despair at being stranded with nothing left but to listen to Commander Lewis’s disco collection. At one point, one of the NASA staff back on Earth muses about the psychological toll that Watney must be suffering, in such a deadly situation so far away from home, and asks ‘What must he be thinking, right now?’ And it turns out that, according to Watney’s journal, what he is actually thinking at that moment is: “How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”

So What Have We Learnt?

Like I've said, I love the story. But this time I want to focus on one aspect of why it’s great: the problem-solving.

There are lots of inspiring stories out there in which the hero beats terrible odds with some creative solutions. But here the creative solutions are not occasional plot devices that turn up at the end of the story. Instead, the story is about a mindset, a culture even, of creative solutions.

And I’m fascinated by how Mark Watney and the other astronauts solve problems.

First of all, to me it seems to be focused on the idea of maintaining homeostasis (i.e. keeping a thing in a stable state so that all of its components can function properly). The astronauts start a checklist of things to be in balance. Mark keeps coming back to this, for his body and for the Mars base he lives in. You need oxygen, water, heat, nutrition... Basically, your daily business is keeping all of these things supplied.

Another fascinating trait of this astronaut problem-solving is short-term (sometimes insanely short-term) solutions.

At one point an airlock on the base blows up – luckily when Mark is in his suit. He seals the enormous airlock-sized hole with some see-through packaging canvas and some duct tape (which he says is magic and should be worshipped as a God).

Later, in the rescue mission, the ship's captain has 40 minutes to figure out how to massively decelerate the ship, in space, with no brakes. (This deceleration requires far more power than any boosters they might have.) Her solution is to make a bomb and blow a hole in the ship and let the escaping air do the work.

Their approach is entirely based on solving one problem at a time, even if the solution to this problem creates more problems.

In fact, this isn’t just an approach – it’s almost a philosophy. A philosophy which is neatly expressed in the last lines of the film:

"At some point, everything's gonna go south on you... everything's going to go south and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem... and you solve the next one... and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?"

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the folk session. About life. About the universe. About how Aquaman controls whales.

  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
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