Playing The Clarinet For Stephen Hawking

This article is my own, and I published it in the Huffington Post today:

Professor Stephen Hawking said in an interview with the New York Times:

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

This encapsulates both his tremendous sense of humour, and the immense success of his many personal and professional endeavours over the physical limitations of Motor Neurone Disease.

I was fortunate to study in the same college where Stephen Hawking worked as a Fellow: walking past his office on the way to dinner, sometimes eating in the same hall. It always felt surreal to live and study in the same place as this scientific luminary, and I spent many awe-struck dinners manoeuvring through the long students’ tables in a rather unseemly way so that I could catch a glimpse at how he uses his computer-based communication system.

Every so often, he used to join the students in the college bar where he might have been sipping a soft drink or talking to students.  It took a few terms to pluck up the courage to ask for a photo with him, and he graciously obliged. Indeed, Professor Hawking never gave the impression of an aloof celebrity scientist, he always seemed to be an authentically down-to-earth man who appreciated life and the people around him.

His self-deferential style of comedy is a feature of his many cameos on popular television series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons and Futurama. He knowingly portrayed himself as a petty, self-important egotist in these and routinely stole the show. One of his funniest recent gigs was his retort to satirist John Oliver’s question “Does that mean that there is a universe our there where I am smarter than you”was “Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny”.

Nevertheless, arguably the greatest testament to his character remains how he tirelessly fought over the last few years in support of the National Health Service. His robust defence of the NHS, without which he said “I wouldn’t be here today” turned to a clinical attack of politicians in a speech at the Royal Society of Medicine where he warned of a “US-style insurance system” being brought about by ministers cutting funds and privatising the healthcare service. Alongside the NHS, he also battled to safeguard science funding and recruitment following the UK’s EU referendum decision. As I work in medicine, this elevated his status in my mind from a hero to a kind of mythic entity: he was spending his sunset years fighting for what he believed was right, with the fire in his soul burning brighter than ever.

“The NHS is Britain’s finest public service and the cornerstone of our society. The NHS brings out the best in us. We cannot lose it.”

My most vivid memory of Professor Hawking is from playing clarinet in a College Orchestra concert during my first term. I had been tasked with performing the solo from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piece The Lark Ascending, but had not quite expected Stephen Hawking to be sitting directly opposite me. My nerves combined with a lazy embouchure and resulted in a largely squeaked segment, which seemed to last an eternity. I looked at Professor Hawking but could not deduce his thoughts as I massacred a classic English piece in my first (and last) performance.

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

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Book Review – “Leaving Megalopolis”. What happens when superheroes turn bad?

After reviewing the fantastic graphic novel The Beautiful Death here I thought to continue with another 5-part comic I read two days ago called Leaving Megalopolis, a 2014 book from Gail Simone.

Leaving Megalopolis: When heroes turn bad. From: Dark Horse Comics

Superhero comic books, when told from the perspective of the ordinary civilian, can be outstanding work like Kurt Busiek’s Marvels series which followed photographer Phil Sheldon as he documented this brave new era. However I do find the additional hook of superheroes turning evil a guilty pleasure, and Leaving Megalopolis follows this theme.

The benchmark for me is the plot, though not the execution, of the Injustice book from DC, a comic series which was spun out of a computer game. The central premise of Injustice is that that Superman loses his head when Gotham’s Joker destroys Metropolis with a nuke and kills Lois Lane and his unborn son. Superman sets up a totalitarian state to bring about order and the story features the rebellion against his fascist rule.

Not all the heroes in that book are “bad” though. Perhaps the most similar comic to Leaving Megalopolis is The Boys from Garth Ennis which portrays a world where superheroes have been corrupted by their celebrity and their increasingly thoughtless and rash actions require a secret taskforce to monitor and deal with. I enjoyed the over-the-top nature of the book though the protagonists were rather stereotyped (The affable Scot, the Cockney geezer, the French one (who was called “Frenchie”) etc….). It isn’t a classic by any means, but it is entertaining fluff.

Heroes of Leaving Megalopolis – Do you recognise any of them? From: Dark Horse Comics

Leaving Megalopolis features even more unhinged superheroes who have unaccountably turned into deranged murderers after encountering an alien. It is unashamedly violent, akin to The Boys, and also sends up popular superhero teams (think Avengers or Justice League) in similarly dark ways. We follow a group of protagonists who want to escape the city of Megalopolis where these superheroes reside. The sense of horror is real, though I did feel that the characters were not as memorable as I might have hoped, with the exception of main protagonist Mina and her cliffhanger leaving the possibility of a sequel. I found the art unsettling in a way that mirrored the palpable tension in the writing, in particular the rage of the superheroes and their glee in causing chaos.

The survivors in Leaving Megalopolis. From: Dark Horse Comics

The main criticism was that I wanted the characters to be fleshed out more. Often certain features of plot were insinuated but there did not seem to be any follow-up, for example there is a hint that one of the band of survivors has done something bad previously, but we never find out what it might be and the book becomes sympathetic towards him. I enjoy mystery and complex characters, but perhaps there was a bit too much shrouding in all but the main character Mina.

Nevertheless, if you do enjoy your stories dark and your worlds dystopic, I recommend that you check this series out, particularly if you enjoy the theme of corrupted heroes.

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Film Review – Black Panther

No significant spoilers in this review

I just saw the latest offering in the Marvel stable in IMAX 3D – Black Panther. Alongside Moon Knight and Hank Pym (who both suffer from inner demons), I’ve found the challenges of Black Panther one of the most interesting in the Marvel comics universe. Chiefly, his turmoil as he struggles with the duties of a king and his own personal values as a person and responsibilities to the world as a whole.

Black Panther from Captain America: Civil War. Source: Marvel.com

This is explored deftly in the new film, which gives us a socio-political quandary right at the beginning – can the isolated secret technology-rich African nation of Wakanda accept responsibility to the rest of the world (and its own continent) and open up, using its resources to help other peoples? It’s a real-life problem that many countries face, and is rendered more stark by the fact that the fictional nation of Wakanda is surrounded by poor neighbours.

Map and Location of Wakanda. Source: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #12 (December 1983).

This is a great popcorn film, full of well-choreographed action sequences, stunning costumes and beautiful cinematography and computer-generated imagery. In particular, the combination of these during the fights in water at a cliff-edge were pure eye candy. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed looking at a film so much, and the key feature here is the balance: there is never too much to see on the screen, but just enough for one to appreciate. I would highly recommend watching this film on an IMAX rather than standard screen, although the 3D elements of the film weren’t particularly crucial to the experience.

Cliff Edge water fight scene. Source: Nerdist.com, Marvel.com

The performances in the film were decent, though not perfect. Chadwick Boseman was very good as T’Challa, as were Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira as his warrior queen and general respectively. I didn’t quite find Letitia Wright’s Shuri as convincing, but that may be personal taste as she is a good actress in other films I’ve seen. Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi was outstanding, and this actor is quickly showing the range in his performances – from an excellent Black Mirror episode, to Sicario, to Get Out and now this performance laiden with subtleties. He’s come a looooong way since playing a pretty stereotyped London Nigerian parking attendant in Harry and Paul. I’ve loved Martin Freeman since his role in the UK’s Office but I found his Everett Ross performance a bit ham-fisted. Andy Serkis was outstandingly over the top as Ulysses Klaue and you can’t help to think he is wasted in his many motion capture roles, I want to see him on-screen! He reminded me of Sharlto Copley in District 9 except even more unhinged. Michael B Jordan as the thuggist Killmonger didn’t do it for me as a principal antagonist – I never felt invested in the character and why he turned out as he did, and was left thinking “What if Daniel Kaluuya had played this role…”. But this is a minor gripe given the variety of great performances throughout the cast.

Cast of Black Panther. Source: www.facebook.com/MarvelCinematicUniverse

My only other criticism of the film was that the humour wasn’t as up-there as I thought it would be – there was a particularly weak joke about “sneakers” which I’m sure was intended to be funny but the cinema was silent. This could be because I had been spoilt by Taika Waititi’s outstanding Thor:Ragnarok which had me in stitches from the beginning to the end. But the themes in this film are, perhaps, such that comedy isn’t really an important element to the story, whereas the third Thor outing had invested itself in being a comedy showpiece, which is executed expertly. In any case, I can’t complain as both films, and indeed so many of the recent Marvel Cinematic offerings, were pure entertainment. Indeed, this studio is struggling to put a foot wrong, with the exception of the absolutely awful Inhumans series.

I would thoroughly recommend this film as a piece of entertainment with some interesting questions throughout.

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Book Review – “The Beautiful Death”: A fantastic graphic novel

I enjoy reading, and love tucking into my Kindle after a long day’s work. However, when I really want to treat myself I like to read Graphic Novels. I offer to the reader that this medium can provide unique experiences through a combination of word and artwork, and should be judged separately from classical literature.

The Beautiful Death from Titan Comics

As I love tales of dystopian or post-apocalyptic words, I chanced upon “The Beautiful Death”, a new 5-part series from French creator Mathieu Bablet. This is titled La Belle Mort in French, which undoubtedly sounds more enticing. I glanced at a few scenes and was immediately reminded of some classic horror manga by the Japanese legend which is Kazuo Umezu, as well as the great Junji Ito.

Basically, this is a tale set on our planet, where insects of varying sizes have taken over and humanity, as we know it, has ended. We follow three survivors who are trying to survive in this desolate world, as they follow and repeat their routine of finding a shop or home to get some canned food. They haven’t met anyone else in a long time.

Giant alien caterpillars? Source: Titan Comics

I won’t give much else of the plot away, suffice to say that it is gripping and the relationship between the characters grabs you from the beginning. What I love about this story, and indeed much Japanese manga, is that you can’t take anything for granted. The world and the protagonists are never black-and-white, but multiple shades of grey. Perhaps this is often missing in other graphic novels where there is often a hero we need to “root” for.


A desolate world awaits you. Source: Titan Comics

The world depicted in both the writing and the illustrations is barren and isolating, and the choices that the characters have to make are equally stark, leaving a “What would you do” theme throughout. The finale to the book left me gasping and has stayed with me for a while. In fact, it has rekindled my love of short-series books, as one can pick them up and finish them in an evening in the time it takes to watch a movie. I’m going to look out for this author in future, and indeed he has opened my eyes to other French artists in this medium.

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REVIEW – Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story

I treated myself to a mobile bundle on the fantastic Humble Bundle , where you can buy bundles of games and give a contribution to charity and developers. I got the Humble Mobile Bundle 22 which has an interesting range of games.

One of them caught my eye, and I just completed it. Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story
It’s a short game, but precisely what I was looking for.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the premise is that you have just found the phone of a lady called Laura, and gradually you piece together a narrative about what has happened to her, including her relationships with various people in her life.

The game builds a convincing mobile world, through text messages, emails, notes and many other applications that we all use on our own mobile devices. This might sound tedious, but the world it builds entraps you and the characters are fleshed out so well in this mobile world that you feel an empathy with Laura and a compulsion to unlock more elements of the story.

There is an extra element to this story which I don’t want to give away in this review. Suffice to say that as a guy, I encountered ideas and affinities that are hard to appreciate fully even when you think that you are open-minded.

It was a game which will stay with me for a long time, it’s also available in a number of other languages:

Please let me know of any other games which are similar in terms of narrative and characterisation in the comments section!

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Exploring the worlds of Vincent Van Gogh in Film and Virtual-Reality

The film Loving Vincent and the VR Experience The Night Cafe let you enter the mind and works of Vincent Van Gogh in unique and magical ways.

The enigmatic Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most influential and iconic figures in art. We have all encountered his most famous paintings, even if we’re not consciously aware of some of them. They imprint themselves into our collective minds in a way that is difficult to explain and comprehend. He is also a fascinating and seemingly undecipherable person, who suffered severely from depression and eventually killed himself.

Recently, we have been allowed a dip into his world through not one, but two different modalities. The film Loving Vincent is an animated biographical drama which has been lovingly and painstakingly crafted in the style of his own paintings. I watched it and was blown away by the small details in the film, which explores the circumstances surrounding Vincent Van Gogh’s death in 1890. It started as a Kickstarter campaign with 796 backers originally pledging $64,000. The outcome is a unique work of art.

It sounds rather hubristic, but I have no doubt that this film will win the 2018 nomination for best animated film.

The second way of jumping into Van Gogh’s mindscape is through The Night Cafe – A VR tribute to Vincent Van Gogh on the HTC Vive and Oculus rift. Being able to walk through a painted Van Goghian world in three dimensions is a surreal and immeasurably enjoyable experience. Although it is short, this experience from Borrowed Light Studios is free and has to be one of the most well-crafted and beautiful experiences in room-scale immersive virtual reality.

Here is my play-through:

I felt that I was living within a world made of his paintings. Not only did I appreciate his art in a new way, it also made it clear to me how Virtual Reality can have a role in forming new types of experiences that we could not imagine before.

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