MyLittlePonyDrink

Ok, that’s a little unfair. As a matter of fact, I am going to ‘fess up – I enjoyed this movie. Judge me, don’t judge me, I don’t care. The film (and in fact the show) is not the standard sort of fare for this sort of movie.

A lot of kids’ shows and films (especially the shows) will talk down to their target audience. My Little Pony doesn’t do that and yet consistently manages to convey messages to children about honesty, loyalty, kindness and friendship. My Little Pony also manages to carry a positive message to young girls – pretty much all the lead characters are female, and they define themselves not by the company or attention of male characters, but rather by their abilities, their friendships with one another and their strength of character. The story of the film is predictable but the humour is pretty good and the film manages to avoid feeling simply like a longer episode. The animation has also been taken up a notch.

All in all, it’s a colourful, musical adventure that moves outside the confines of the show and carries a positive message to the youngsters watching it. It’s also wittier than it might first appear. 8/10.

I am not a lover of early starts, but I am prepared to put myself through it for Formula 1, so I was up at 5.40am, for a 6am race start in Suzuka. Could I have stayed in bed and spared myself a potentially dull race? Well, in hindsight, maybe I should have, for it wasn’t riveting to watch, even if Japan might prove the decisive blow in the world championship race. The key moment happened arguably before the race even began (as was the case in Malaysia last Sunday) when Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari developed a problem with a spark plug. Despite frantic efforts to fix the problem and despite starting the race, Vettel would be down on power and retiring after a few laps.

To add to the disappointment, Vettel had started second on the grid (bumped up after Valtteri Bottas took a five-place grid penalty), and might have been a threaten to Lewis Hamilton at some stage during the race. Instead, Vettel had to watch from the sidelines and hope that someone could take points off Hamilton. That person was most likely to be Max Verstappen, who moved up to second as Vettel dropped back.

The race became somewhat pedestrian, with only a handful of incidents to provide talking points. Carlos Sainz, in his final race for Toro Rosso (before he replaces Joylen Palmer at Renault) crashed out on the opening lap, whilst Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber joined him not too long after. Lance Stroll had a fairly dramatic late exit from the race when his tyre popped on the fast ‘Ss’ section of the track, nearly collecting Daniel Ricciardo in the process.

Ferrari suffered, not only with Vettel’s exit but a bit of first-lap hijinks between Kimi Raikkonen and Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg, who stuck to the inside line around the Spoon and thus left Raikkonen with no choice but to run wide. Raikkonen (who had also taken a five-place grid penalty, and like Bottas, this was due to a gearbox change) did climb up the field quite swiftly, highlighting the good pace of the Ferrari, and for the third race in a row, leaving them to wonder what might have been. Up front, the tyre stops (switching from supersofts to softs in most cases) yielded better performances from Verstappen, who began to chip away at Hamilton’s lead. Hamilton was reporting problems with his rear tyres and later on, vibrations (not a driver’s best friend) in the car. Could Verstappen claim a second consecutive win?

Down the field there were a couple of potential duels between teammates that didn’t quite bear fruit, which would have come as a relief for Force India (Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon have had a couple of accidents and with both cars in the points, the team didn’t want to risk another collision, denying Perez the opportunity to attack Ocon), and a similar situation developed as the Haas’ of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean trailed Felipe Massa’s Williams. In the end Massa, struggling with his tyres, slipped wide and got messy into turn 1, and both Haas were able to force their way through.

The biggest moment of excitement (from Hamilton’s point of view) came very late on, as Verstappen began to creep toward DRS range and the pair came across a battling Massa and Fernando Alonso. Alonso was seeking to put his McLaren into the last points position but his charge to get past Massa was interrupted by Hamilton lapping him, and Alonso in turn disrupted Verstappen’s chase of Hamilton. It was enough for Hamilton to stay clear and win, an outcome that sees him put one hand on the championship.

He is now 59 points clear with only 100 remaining. Unless he has two or three very poor races, it is highly likely Hamilton will become the first British driver to win four world championships, and he could even make this happen next time out, in Austin, USA.

Is freedom the right to have one of these?

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Or the right to do this…

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… without fear?

Some (and I must emphasise, only some) of the Americans I know insist that the Constitution be treated as sacrosanct, their right to bear arms immutable. Is it morally correct to regard the right to have virtually unrestricted access to a lethal weapon as being superior to the right of people to be able to enjoy a music festival, or go to work, or even school, without the potential threat of being killed?

Some might argue – ‘someone could pick up a knife and use that as a weapon’. ‘A car or a truck is a weapon in the wrong hands’. True, on both counts, but could the Las Vegas killer have killed 59 people with a knife? Would he have been able to kill 59 people with a car? Knifes and vehicles are not designed as deadly weapons – a gun’s sole purpose is to kill. It is far more effective at this than a knife.

Case in point, in 2014 just over 33,000 people were killed by firearms in the USA – the same number killed in motor vehicle accidents. You might be thinking, ‘how does this help your argument?’ Well, bear with me.

The USA has an estimated population of 323,127,513. 85% (274,658,386) own or have access to a car. As of 2016 36% of Americans (116,325,904) own at least one gun. Therefore, you are more than twice as likely to be killed by a gun in the USA than by a car. Let that sink in for a moment – less than half of US citizens actually have a gun, yet guns are responsible for as many deaths per year as cars, which nearly every American owns or has access to.

It doesn’t stop there. There are claims that locations with stricter gun controls have higher incidents of gun crime. Is this true, and if so, is it as simple as suggested?

Chicago is often cited as an example of where strict gun control laws cause an increase in crime. The situation is actually more complicated than that, and at any rate, the problem of gun violence in the USA as a whole is unique to America’s fascination to these deadly weapons. Entire countries have enacted tougher gun laws and these countries have correspondingly lower homicide rates. Take for example, the UK.

After the Dunblane tragedy, strict new laws were drafted to prevent anything like that from ever happening again. So far, 21 years on, we have not seen a repeat of that horrible event. Overall, Britain has a lower homicide rate than the USA – 0.92 per 100,000 people, compared to 4.88 per 100,000, whilst the rate with a gun is 0.06 in the UK, versus 3.60 in the USA. This also means that gun homicides account for more than half of homicides in the USA.

In Japan, where gun laws are extremely strict, homicides by gun are so low they are measured in single digit figures, and the overall homicide rate is just 0.31 per 100,000. In countries such as Germany (where guns are in fact quite prevalent) the homicide rate with guns is 0.07 – Germany’s laws on guns are robust with plenty of checks in place. Their total homicide rate is 0.85.

So the UK, Japan and Germany have all taken different approaches to gun control, and all have not only lower homicide rates with guns, but lower homicide rates overall. This seems pretty conclusive, so why do Americans remain unwilling to make any changes to their gun laws? The problem appears to be cultural more than anything – the right to bear arms reflects the right, in part at least, to resist the government in the event that they tried to develop into a totalitarian regime. This might have held true in an era with a smaller population and a relatively level playing field in terms of the weaponry, but today? Could comparatively untrained ‘militias’ hold off a well-trained army with access to tanks and warplanes? This scenario also applies to foreign invasions.

‘What about the right to defend property?’

It’s true that people want to be able to defend their homes in the event of a burglary or home invasion. However, there is every chance, under the current trends of US society, for the would-be burglar to also be armed. Is that a preferable scenario to one where no one is armed?

More importantly, is the right to bear arms more important than the right to life?

 

wpid-wp-1421964661354.pngFormula 1 returns to the land of the Rising Sun to a venue that has provided many a dramatic race and many a title decider. I’ve written before about the occasions this fast Suzuka circuit has seen – from 1987-1991 (among other times) the title was settled here, including all three of Ayrton Senna’s titles. A track tinged with tragedy too (Forza Jules), Suzuka is famous for being fast. The sequence from turns 3 through 6 is a testing set of snappy left-right curves that drivers enjoy, not least of all because they require the racers to hang on at high speed through them. With the faster cars of 2017 we should expect to see some very quick drives through this section.

Some parts of the track are deceptive – turn 13 for example, is slower than it appears, and turn 14, whilst being pretty high speed, might still prompt a gentle application of the brakes. Another variable here is the weather – it is not uncommon for rain to add a new dimension to the race.

In fact, for 2nd practice for this year’s Grand Prix, it did rain, enough to lead most drivers – whose supplies of wet weather tyres are limited – to not go out. In those circumstances Hamilton’s Mercedes was fastest – but in dry conditions in FP1, it was Sebastian Vettel who was narrowly quicker than Lewis. This was unexpected – the general belief was that Mercedes would be quicker around here.

What this adds up to are the conditions for a fascinating race. Vettel must win to keep his title hopes alive, and ideally he’d want Raikkonen to slot into second and help him out. If Vettel were to win all the remaining races he’d win the title regardless, but it’s bold to assume he’d win them all, therefore he must maximise every opportunity, starting here.

I suppose this film was inevitable. The prevalence of smartphones and their huge array of apps was, sooner or later, going to be a bankable movie product, and I dare say the film actually starts out surprisingly clever, with some notable observations about the pace of life these days, and the way in which we socialise (or don’t) thanks to our phones. The theme of the film is expression, so maybe, just maybe, in a subtle way, it’s trying to encourage its target audience (kids) to put the phones down and talk to each other. I’m not actually sure if that’s what’s going on, as the film is quite ‘meh’.

That’s actually quite ironic, given what the film is going for about expressing one’s self. Instead of being confined to a set role in life, this film is all about being different and not letting societal norms rule you. One character actually makes this point quite strongly regarding expectations for girls (only to send a confused message about this later, but I’ll come back to that). The trouble for the movie is, it just isn’t all that interesting, despite the flashy scenes and up-to-date pop music score (which is frankly more grating than great). Since the film is about apps that seem to encourage short attention spans, it’s not a surprise to see the film jump around in the same manner. This makes it quite disjointed.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t funny moments. Sir Patrick Stewart as the ‘Poop’ emoji proves to be quite entertaining, if underused (there is also one ‘red alert’ moment that had me laughing out loud). The trouble is, none of the characters are particularly interesting or engaging, and you don’t feel invested in what happens to them. Maybe kids would relate more, I don’t know.

Coming back to the feminist angle, we get a character trying to shrug off female stereotypes, only to embrace one of them in order to save the day. Maybe that can be interpreted as ‘you can still be feminine and tough’, but given how the film sets up this character, it’s a bit of a weird ‘about-face’ on that one.

All in all, there are better kids’ films out there, so I wouldn’t waste time on this one. 6/10.

Back in October 2015, I wrote an article regarding gun crime and American attitudes to these weapons. Among the details, I talked about how gun crime in the US compared to other countries, circa 2012. In the wake of the terrible events that unfolded in Las Vegas yesterday, and despite claims by certain parties that this matter should not be discussed yet (when is a good time to discuss it, one wonders?), I’m going to once again tackle the attitudes that Americans (and I must stress, not all Americans) have toward guns.

It’s an historical relationship, enshrined in the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution, a document written centuries ago, during a very different era. It came into being in December 1791, and followed on from the Declaration of Independence and the tensions leading up to the Revolutionary War. As a matter of note, the 2nd Amendment took inspiration from an English Bill of Rights, one that spoke of the right to self-defense, the right to resist invaders and resistance to oppression. During the turbulent times of the Revolution and the formative years of the USA, the right to bear arms (perhaps even a need) would have proven important to the protection of one’s family, from both thieves/raiders, and the possibility of a tyrannical government/government forces. Taking up arms to repel invaders would have been seen as a patriotic duty.

These documents were drawn up to reflect weapons that bear little resemblance to the firearms of today. Unwieldy, inaccurate and slow to reload, these were nothing like the rifles and pistols and machine guns of today. As time has gone by, the US has developed a police force and a military to take over civic duties and national defence. The original right to bear arms in the 2nd Amendment is not reflective of these changes. Instead, some 55 million Americans have firearms, and access to them is made easy. You don’t even need a permit in many US states.

Despite the popular claim from pro-gun lobbies, the prevalence of guns in US society does not make people safer – in fact, quite the opposite. States with more guns have more gun-related deaths. This also pans out on a national level – with the USA leading the way on this by a considerable margin – just check out the statistics from this page.

This isn’t just about murders and mass shootings – it is far easier to commit suicide with a gun, and this is also reflected in the link above.

I can’t advocate banning guns completely from US society – I don’t understand the love affair with a deadly weapon, but it’s something that’s deeply engrained into US culture and not about to change. However, as I have said elsewhere, the definition of insanity (or stupidity) is repeating the same thing over and over again, whilst expecting a different outcome. Every time a mass shooting happens, we hear that it’s not the right time to talk about gun control, and every time a mass shooting happens, nothing changes. Access to these deadly weapons remains very easy. Other countries have taken steps to introduce much tighter regulations and have seen sharp reductions in death rates from guns, and a drop in homicide rates overall. These are not co-incidences.

For the last time in the foreseeable future, F1 has graced the Sepang circuit in Malaysia with its presence, producing a race with some initially unexpected results, and a case of shooting one’s self in the foot. For the second race in succession, Ferrari had the initiative, and for the second time in a row they squandered it.

Whereas in Singapore driver error was to blame, here it was due to technical reasons. After Vettel had looked very quick in practice, a transmission problem conspired to rule him out of qualifying completely, forcing him to start last. This was bad luck for the German and it could not have come at a worse time – on a track where things had expected to be close, Ferrari actually looked to have an advantage on Mercedes. It was up to Raikkonen to hold up Hamilton’s title charge, but trouble developed for the Finn as the cars sat on the grid – he was wheeled off, with the bope of starting from the pit lane, but that hope would fade. 

So this left Hamilton (who had narrowly beaten Raikkonen to pole) to start with Verstappen and Ricciardo’s Red Bulls begins him. After a strong start from Valtteri Bottas to steal third, soon both Mercedes would come under pressure from the Red Bulls – Verstappen would take Hamilton for the lead within a few laps, whilst Ricciardo would get by Bottas a few laps later. The Red Bulls had looked pretty good in their own right during practice, and now one of them led a race, on merit, for the first time since 2013. Verstappen began to edge clear of Hamilton, who in turn kept clear of Ricciardo, who was in turn easing away from a disappointing Bottas. 

Meanwhile Vettel would begin to scythe his way through the field. The slower cars offered little resistance, though old rival Fernando Alonso did make a nuisance of himself for a few laps, despite, as ever, lacking power in his McLaren. Whereas virtually everyone was starting on supersoft tyres, Vettel started on softs, inverting the strategy, yet despite being on the slower tyre he was able to resume climbing up the field once he cleared Alonso. At the front, Verstappen continued to pull away.

For the top three things would remain fairly static for the most part, without much intrigue or excitement. However Ricciardo would have a brief tangle with Vettel, who had managed to climb to fourth, including dispatching Bottas without too much difficulty. By this stage Vettel was on the quicker supersoft tyre and Ricciardo was on the slower soft compound, but the supersofts are more fragile, and Ricciardo (at one point aided a little by a lapped Alonso, who didn’t leap immediately out of Vettel’s way) was able to fend off the one and only meaningful attack Vettel made. From there, Vettel’s tyres gave up, leaving the top three to remain as they were.

Hamilton could do nothing about Verstappen, but after practice had suggested Vettel might claw back a decent chunk of the gap, instead his championship lead increased to 34 points with five races to go. Vettel’s performance was exemplary, and an excellent piece of damage limitation, but for the second race in a row big opportunities have been missed. Meanwhile, Red Bull scored a rare double podium, and Verstappen’s comfortable, mature win, serves as a reminder of the young man’s talent. Married to a better engine, it’s clear the Red Bull drivers would be in the title race. 

Next up is Japan, a track that should favour Mercedes, but then again, Malaysia should have. As we bid goodbye to the nation, Ferrari are left to wonder what might have been.

What with the arrival of Star Trek Discovery, there has been something of a renewed focus on Star Trek, but another show – a non-Star Trek show – had already beaten Discovery to the punch, if only a little bit. The Orville is from the mind of Seth MacFarlane, usually associated with the crass humour of Family Guy and the Ted movies. Yet, after three episodes, it’s fair to say The Orville is not crass or crude, and what’s more, it’s not a spoof of Star Trek, nor a series version of Galaxy Quest. It’s not serious like Star Trek tends to be, but whilst there are comedic themes, there have also been (bearing in mind I’ve only seen three episodes!) some typically Star Trek takes on issues of the day – such as transgender and parental rights, respect for other cultures and how we treat animals.

There is a kind of gentle humour here, a style that’s quite light and fluffy, yet it’s not trivialising important issues. The writing is quite clever, and it’s worth noting that Brannon Braga, executive producer on several Star Trek shows, is on board as a producer here too, which would help to explain the Star Trek feel of this show. I can’t say for sure how the series will fare as it continues, but so far, it has been very entertaining, quite funny, and it does what Star Trek is supposed to do – it makes you think.

For the third time since 2002, we have a reboot of the Spiderman film franchise, with Tom Holland stepping into the boots that Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield had previously filled. The key difference this time is that Holland’s Spiderman inhabits the established Marvel Cinematic Universe, joining the fold, so to speak (hence the title, ‘Homecoming‘). The arrangement between Marvel and Sony is a great bit of business for both studios, and it also gives fans what they wanted to see – one of the best-loved comic book characters Marvel has ever produced joining the MCU.

Of course, with that power comes great responsibility (sorry, couldn’t resist!). Tom Holland is the youngest of the three actors to play Peter Parker on the big screen, and as a teenager himself, is perhaps best-placed to understand the awkwardness of the age, when you are desperate to fit in, yet completely unsure of how to do it. To add to the character’s worries is the desire to be part of something greater – Parker has his powers, but is not regarded as a member of the Avengers, on account of his youth and inexperience. So naturally, he yearns to prove himself, with disastrous consequences.

Not that these consequences are entirely of his own making. A bit of trust from a key character at a certain time might have been enough to prevent a big problem later on, yet much of what happens through the middle of the film is on Parker’s uncontrolled determination to be the hero he wants to be, even if it means he overextends himself. Something we all grapple with as teenagers – we want to be more than we are, we want to fit in, we want to prove ourselves, whilst lacking the understanding that experience brings. I think we can all relate to Parker in that respect.

We also see other sides to Parker – his determination and his courage. After a pivotal moment where he is stripped of his confidence and the support of Tony Stark, he is unexpectedly thrust back into a deadly situation – or to be more precise, he puts himself back into a deadly situation when he sees an opportunity to step in and correct his earlier mistake. This exposes him to great danger, but he is conscious of the greater danger of letting the situation continue unchecked, and he doesn’t hesitate to put place himself in harm’s way to stop the bad guy. Bravery has often been a key part of the character – just look at the comics – so this is a nice way of honouring the character.

Speaking of the bad guy, Michael Keaton is an Oscar winner and he reminds people as to why here. Adrian Toomes/The Vulture carries a lot of steel and menace as a guy driven to the edge, and he is not (unlike some Marvel villains) a one-dimensional character, but rather, a man who feels that he is doing a service for the little guys against the fat cats. He sells weapons of tremendous power to the wrong people, but acts to protect his family and loved ones, and has a strong sense of loyalty to the little gang he works with. He can be ruthless; he does so to protect the people he loves.

In fact, this brings me to a nice little moment at the end – both hero and villain have the opportunity to let the other die/set the dogs on the other. Both pass this chance up in order to do the right thing. This sets the film apart from many of the other MCU entries, which tend to be quite ‘black and white’ in terms of how they handle their dilemmas.

In terms of the other characters… really, they feel quite incidental. Jacob Batalon is Ned, Parker’s best friend, and he provides comic relief and an outlet for Parker, but not a lot else (though he does have one of the best lines in the movie). Laura Harrier is Liz, Parker’s dream girl, but she doesn’t really have a lot to do. She is portrayed as being very clever, but doesn’t get too many chances to demonstrate this. A more interesting character is Michelle, played by Zendaya, of Disney TV series fame. Michelle is quite a bullish character, speaking what’s on her mind and eschewing the standard narrative of high school culture. Finally, Robert Downey Jr reprises his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man, serving as the main link between this new incarnation of Spiderman and the MCU as a whole, whilst Jon Favreau is back as Happy Hogan, the somewhat beleaguered security chief/administrator for Stark. Gwyneth Paltrow makes a cameo at the end as Pepper Potts, but it’s very brief, and Chris Evans appears as Captain America in some ‘motivational videos’ which are quite funny.

The film is ultimately a vehicle for Peter Parker, and also for Tom Holland. He does an excellent job portraying the confused state that young Parker is in, ranging from his nervous energy, to dejected misfit.

Finally, I feel compelled to praise the length and breadth of the MCU. The last three entries we’ve had Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, and now Spiderman Homecoming. One film dealt with mysterious realms and ‘magic’, the other was misfit team space adventure, and this latest film is about teenage angst. Each film weaves part of a complex tapestry and yet manages to be distinctive. The universe Marvel has built is truly amazing.

9/10

It’s home Grand Prix time! And as it normal for the UK, the elements would play a role. The practice sessions took place in dry conditions but the Met Office was forecasting a 90% chance of rain come the start of the race – without rain during practice runs it was guesswork as to setup and tyre performance. It was also a gamble as to whether to start on inters or full wets – what would the weather do?! A brief opportunity did arise to do testing but the erratic performance of the precipitation rendered the information more or less pointless. It was, for me at least, a case of trusting my gut. With the forecast changing and hinting at prolonged rain, I went for full wets on both cars.

The choice proved correct. The rain fell for a considerable length of time, saturating the track. I opted for a two-stop strategy for both drivers and away we went.

From the beginning it became clear this was a three-tier race – those who had not run any wet weather practice, nor attempted a wet weather setup, languished behind everyone else, not aided by being on inters (which the game defaults to). Then came a second group – which my cars were attached to, along with the Drivezalot boys and one other. Then we had the leaders, who peeled away quickly. Once Drivezalot’s Morales had gotten ahead of a car in front of him he too began to pull away – leaving the rest of us to scrap for the lower points places. At one stage I had both cars in the points (yes, Taylor was keeping a reasonable pace for once), there was to be a new variable late on, and a miscalculation.

With only a few laps remaining the rain suddenly stopped, which would work in Thompson’s favour as he would gain a few places by sticking to wet tyres as others pitted. Thompson would claim 7th place – not a bad effort. Taylor was running in the points but I had underfuelled him; a last lap stop dropped him to 12th. Still, a third consecutive points finish keeps me hitting targets and staying comfortably clear of relegation.

In the title race, a Black Arrows 1-2 provided a lift to them at a time where other teams had been threatening. However, it was J Smith and not Thompson who won. J Hill of Mopar completed the podium. Those who kept on wet tyres were the ones who benefited here.