I’m finishing this (late) entry from Bangkok airport at the moment, on my way to going snorkelling with the orcas! Bare with me a little this month – I’m taking every opportunity I have to write articles, but internet access is going to be a little challenging while I’m travelling through January… especially this coming week when I’m in a campervan driving around Northern Norway in the middle of winter!
Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Years break, and enjoy the first “Reading, Watching and Listening” post for 2019!
What I’m Reading
Ever since Stephen King breezed over grammar in On Writing by simply saying “Read Strunk & White”, I’ve been wondering what’s so special this pamphlet-sized book written in the 1910’s that barely hits 80 pages? My curiosity remained pretty casual though, so much that I’ve had an unread paperback copy of The Elements of Style sitting on my bookshelf for a few years without ever having a strong desire to read it. 2018 was all been about tying up loose ends though, so before I started 2019 I figured I should finally read it once before donating it to the local library… I mean it’s a boring grammar book but it might help with writing Cosmic Nomad even a little, right?
I’ve genuinely never been so surprised by a book. For starters who the hell expects a book about grammar and writing style to be laugh out loud funny? I’m not sure if it’s Strunk’s voice or White’s, but the level of sass pouring out of this book is hilarious – who’d have expected some dry old English professor or his do-gooder former student to publish a book that throws so much shade around. I had to read it in relatively short bursts of 5-10 pages simply because there’s so much to absorb everything packed into every paragraph of this tight little book, but it was very easy to pick it up again the next night knowing it’d bring another set of giggles.
And Stephen King was absolutely right – I know it’s already improved my grammar and helped me develop a greater trust in my own writing stlye. It might sound ridiculous, but if you have any interest in reading or writing then spending a few weeks dipping in and out of The Elements of Style is well worth the effort – you’re certain to giggle through the sass and finish it with a far greater appreciation for beautiful yet succinct writing.
A little over 10 years ago I decided to get back into scuba diving – developing my experience as a teenager diving with Dad by taking on the simultaneous challenge of becoming a recreational scuba instructor while also training as a mixed-gas technical diver. Becoming a recreational instructor with PADI was fairly straight forward: in less than 6 months I did my rescue diver course with Dad, connected with a local dive shop to do my Divemaster internship, a completed an Instructor Development Course course doing my final exam and being certified to teach something I’d been doing since I was 12.
The path to becoming a recreational instructor was obvious and the hurdles were few. Becoming a mixed-gas technical diver was something else altogether, and the only guidance I had (at least initially) came from reading An Introduction To Technical Diving by Rob Palmer, and it’s been an incredible and surreal experience picking it up again 10 years later as I returned to teach scuba and extend my technical diver training yet again – this time on closed-circuit rebreathers. Even though it was published in 1995, much like The Elements of Style it’s been surprising to realise just how clear-cut and relevant a fairly short book from a different time can still be… although Rob Palmer’s writing isn’t even remotely as funny as Strunk & White’s.
It’s also been surprising to realise just how much my own understanding of technical diving has changed in the last 10 years – many of the things in the book I read back then I only now truly appreciate as I’ve stepped up into rebreathers and prepare to venture into cave diving. It’s also helped me truly acknowledge that this is the kind of diving I want to be doing – not teaching people entry-level scuba.
Putting people through their Open Water course is certainly a positive experience – watching as they push passed their comfort zone to learn a new skill that opens up the underwater world. But it certainly doesn’t challenge my comfort zone, which I realise now is what I’ve always really sought from diving. Not to go deep or into caves for the sake of it, but to continuously test and learn more about myself while doing something I’m really good at… the same way I know venturing into space and exploring Mars will be a continuous and comfort zone testing experience I’ll excel at.
One of the sadder elements of reading An Introduction to Technical Diving however was googling Rob Palmer to see if he’d written an update or another book since this was published in 1995… only to learn he disappeared diving off the coast of Eygpt in 1997. Rob was notorious for being an exceptional yet arrogant diver who didn’t hesitate to ruffle feathers, and while he was publicly an incredible advocate for many of the safe diving practices that are now standard across the technical diving community, it seems at least in the last week of his life he wasn’t practicing what he preached. There’s also an uncomfortable irony that Rob writes several paragraphs in An Introduction to Technical Diving about how so many “unexplained” fatalities with divers breathing air deeper than 65m can be easily explained when oxygen toxicity is taken into account… yet his own disappearance while using air to over 120m was still labelled by the majority of the diving community as “unexplained” for years afterwards.
What I’m Watching
The Great Wall is one of those films that I loved the look of when it was first being advertised in cinemas, never saw, and promptly forgot about… until I saw it had been recently added to Netflix and thought “Oh yeah, that sounded good”. I’ve also started to learn that if the hype for a film disappears as soon as it’s released, it’s usually a strong sign the film is average at best.
In the case of The Great Wall though I suspect it’s just a case of being lost in translation. We’ve got a villain drawn from genuine Chinese folklore with an added sci-fi twist, an all-star Chinese cast… and Matt Damon. Everything about The Great Wall screams extraordinary Chinese cinema: the highly stylised preparations of the wall defenders, the vibrant primary colours of the troops that are all matched to their roles, the tales of two foreigners venturing into the secretive kingdom.
All of it is high budget and stunning cinema, but I think the reason it the hype disappeared and it struggled in the US is because it’s critically-acclaimed Chinese cinema. Attaching Matt Damon as the lead was a perfect way to connect Western audiences to Chinese cinema, and I was genuinely impressed to see Matt Damon alter his acting style and speech pattern to fit the larger style of the film (rather than being even more foreign in the film than he already is). But I suspect a lot of folks were expecting Matt Damon in a Hollywood film about ancient China, rather than a Chinese film with a well-known Western actor playing a foolish foreigner who eventually learns the wisdom of China.
Truth be told it was a different film to what I was expecting, but I loved being exposed to a very different style of cinema that featured a familiar face. It’s a genuinely great film, and I’d recommend anyone to watch it… just don’t go in expecting it to be Die Hard with Matt Damon in ancient China, and try to appreciate the differences in film style rather than being threatened by them.
It’s rather fitting that I’d watch Paul again this month, because in a few weeks I’ll finally be on the Nevada roadtrip I’ve been thinking about since I first saw the film back in 2012! While I’m really not fussed about ever going to a ComicCon, I’ve always loved the idea of hiring a campervan to drive up Nevada State Route 375 – also known as the “Extraterrestrial Highway” because it runs parallel to Area 51 and has had more than it’s fair share of UFO sightings.
While in the film Simon Pegg and Nick Frost get to the black mailbox (at the end of the road leading to Area 51 itself) then turn around on their way back towards Las Vegas (and *spoilers* run into an alien name Paul, voiced by Seth Rogan) my plan has always been to keep heading north to call into Reno and Lake Tahoe before working my way back to LA through all the national parks in between – Eldorado, Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia.
Paul as a film though is just a whole lot of fun – basically a stoner adventure film except with a couple of English nerds, Kristen Wiig playing a hardcore Christian who has her mind blown by science and just starts grabbing dicks, and an animated alien who regularly strips naked to become invisible. It’s not ground-breaking cinema and it’s not high-class humour – it’s really just a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to replicate some of it while driving across Nevada and looking to the skies each night.
Netflix loves to promote the hell out some stuff that I think looks like genuine garbage – I have zero regrets about never watching The Cloverfield Paradox, and if I never have another trailer for F is For Family start auto-playing it will still be too much. That said Birdbox is the first time I’ve seen Netflix feature something that I immediately wanted to watch, so within a few days of it being released I sat down to see if it lived up to the tense promo…
I did genuinely enjoy the premise, and the cast is full of some exceptional actors. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I was really expecting/hoping for something a whole lot grittier and brutal. There’s some truly awful scenes in the first 10 minutes, and there’s moments of genuine tension, but most of it never feels dark or claustrophobic enough to justify the fear we’re seeing from the actors.
It’s a good film I just don’t think it had the layering I’d hoped it would, and what it does have feels very rooted in the Christianity and the supernature – it feels like the “creatures” in it are unknowable demons delievering Judgement day, rather than something that we could ever empathise with or even try to understand. I won’t ruin the ending, but I have an issue with it for the same reason – it feels magical and unchanging, rather than rooted in reality.
There’s been a lot of comparison between Birdbox and A Quiet Place which I watched a few months back – they’re both good in their own way, the difference is I’d gladly rewatch A Quiet Place but can’t say the same for Birdbox.
Not long after I returned to teach scuba, a friend I mentioned it to excitedly started telling me about an “amazing and terrifying” documentary on Netflix about cave divers recovering the bodies of two of their friends who’d died while trying to traverse an ultra-deep Norwegian cave. She couldn’t remember the documentary’s name, and I was more fixated on teaching scuba and learning to use my rebreather than watching Netflix, so I forgot about it for a few weeks.
It wasn’t until I was looking to see if there were any new episodes of The Good Place available that I had Diving Into The Unknown pop up as a recommendation, and the moment the trailer started playing I immediately noticed one of the divers was using the same type of rebreather I’ve been training on – a JJ CCR. Within a few days of seeing the trailer I carved out an evening to watch it, and the full documentary lived up to absolutely everything my friend (and the trailer) had promised and more.
What the team did is public knowledge – illegally returning to a cave after an international team of cave rescue divers declared it too dangerous, and successfully bringing back the bodies of friends they’d lost months before. How the team did it is why Diving Into The Unknown is so extraordinary, and the psychology involved in ultra-deep and complex cave diving should be fascinating for anyone with any interest in exploration… especially for anyone wanting to go one-way to Mars. There’s a quote from the team leader towards the end that sums up what they did perfectly, and it an excellent credo for anyone with a desire to explore further than those before: “If you have to ask why we do this, you’ll never understand.”
I’ve written before about how I never really grew up with The Simpsons, while Futurama has obviously had an overwhelming influence on my life. When I heard that Matt Groening had a new series that looked at the past (after the present of The Simpsons and the future with Futurama), I wasn’t sure what I was in for and actively held off watching Disenchantment for several weeks.
Ultimately once I had a few days off I binged most of it, with mixed final results. Firstly it’s great to see such clean and polished animation – something that’s obvious in the latest Simpsons episodes too, but can be amazing to witness when Futurama is my baseline. The mix of voice actors is nice too, with a few recognisable English voices (like Matt Berry) breaking the usual array of American accents that most adult cartoons use. Finally the story isn’t bad, with a few surprising twists for what could easily be a run-of-the-mill animated sitcom.
There’s just something missing though, and I can’t quite place it – it’s fun and easy to watch, but it’s not hysterical. There seems to be a sense that the characters could all be so much richer than than are – they’re all interesting but feel a little flat, like they’ve been toned back to reach a broader audience. As much as I do enjoy watching it, I also know that Disenchantment is in a similar catagory to Archer is for me these days – fun and entertaining, but I won’t be scrambling when the next season comes out.
What I’m Listening To
For the last few years I’ve had a couple of tracks from The Octopus Project pop up in my recommended Spotify playlists, and I’ve always enjoyed the recommendations. The first time I heard any of it was their single Truck of the Hello, Avalanche album back in 2016, and while I loved the single I couldn’t really get into the rest of the album when I looked it up.
A few weeks ago I had the single Wrong Gong catch my attention too, but unfortunately the same thing happened when I decided to try to listen to the rest of their album Memory Mirror – it just doesn’t resonate with me. Maybe The Octopus Project is always going to be one of those bands that I only ever listen to singles from, but that seems like a shame – it’s all exceptional music, and some of it clearly resonates… I just doesn’t seem to have found an album from them that fits together into something I enjoy cohesively just yet