Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.  I did really enjoy his many psych evaluations where he made verbal reports such as:

  • “I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.”
  • “I’m steady, calm, ready to do my job to the best of my abilities. I will remain calm. I will remain focused.”
  • “I’m calm, steady. I slept well, eight point two hours, no bad dreams. I am ready to go, ready to do my job to the best of my ability. I am focused only on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions. I will not allow myself to be distracted. I will not allow my mind to linger on that which isn’t important. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.”

I even looked some of these up to use as affirmations in preparation for a stressful event recently.

So what about the film irritated me and to my mind hold it back from true greatness? Spoilers ahead.

First, while the space scenes were visually spectacular, the technology looked identical to that used for the moon landings. The rocket used to leave the earth was a multistage rocket just like the Saturn 5, we even saw the boosters falling away as it left earth atmosphere. OK, but the rocket from the moon to Mars also looked similar, and yet the trip was to be done in 17 days.  That is an order of magnitude faster than NASA thinks it can achieve.  On top of that, they stopped along the way to investigate a distress signal from another spacecraft which was drifting. Then apparently accelerated again and got to Mars within days not weeks or months.  My sons disagreed with me, and said almost certainly they had much better fuel, engines etc and just didn’t dwell on the technology. Even so, it just seemed jarring to me to have a trip to Uranus and back in months using technology that looked identical to that used in the 1960s.

This continued on the moon when they travelled to the dark side in lunar rovers looking just like those of the Apollo expeditions, right down to the space suits they wore as they sat in the open rovers.  Once on Mars, surface transportation were little bus-like vehicles with no need for space suits.  Back to the moon, they were attacked by space pirates also wearing space suits and riding open rovers.  This really made me incredulous. The movie did say that there were multiple bases from a number of countries, and mining companies, and quite a few people on the moon. But it defies my imagination to think that the US base would not have surveillance, and that a lunar surveillance satellite would not be able to spot and track all outside movement on the lunar surface and alert McBride and his companions to unknown vehicles approaching.

The other limitation was the theme of McBride seeking out his father, dealing with Daddy issues, and returning to earth a changed man who will give priority to his loved ones. This is pop psychology and the movie did not really go beyond the simplistic here.  There really was not much of a deep dive into either father or son’s issues, or the broader issue of other life in the universe, on which some of the psychology was hung.  Though Interstellar did not go too much deeper, I found it a much more moving and thought-provoking movie than Ad Astra.

I think the viewing public must have had some similar thoughts.  On Rotten Tomatoes, the critic score was high at 83% and the audience score wa 42%. Similarly, on Metacritic, the critics score 80% and the user score is 59%.  Typical of some of the user reviews was the following comment: In space, no one can hear you cry about your absent-daddy issues.”

The movie is worth seeing, if only to see Brad Pitt in a very different role. Where his beauty is largely hidden and we get to see only his eyes through a space helmet visor.  But it misses greatness in my view.

The Manson murders and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After watching Tarantino’s latest film, which I reviewed in my last post (once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood), I got out Helter-Skelter to read again. This is the absolutely riveting story of the Manson murders in Hollywood in 1969, the police investigation that followed, the trial and outcomes, written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who meticulously investigated and prosecuted Manson and three female followers.

Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”.Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to.

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Myers-Briggs Personality Types

The US housewife and writer Katharine Cook Briggs with her daughter Isabel, the eventual creator of the test, c1905

I first came across the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) around 30 years ago. The MBTI was developed by Isabel Myers, a layman, and her mother Katherine Briggs, around the middle of the twentieth century.  They developed a questionnaire  that classified people into 16 types based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, along with their own considerable experience of observing people in action, and some inspirational speculation. Jung’s theory was based on differences in the way that we prefer to use our mental capacities to function in the world – and Myers and Briggs simplified this to identify four dimensions of functioning preferences.  Their questionnaire and most others classify people’s preferences on these four dimensions and assign a letter based to each dimension based on which side of the middle-point you fall. The combinations of these letters result in 16 so-called “personality types”.

The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) has become extremely popular and is a very widely used tool in management training. There are many variants of the questionnaire and of the type classification available for free online, as well as copyrighted versions used by management training companies and others.  It is estimated that since the 1960s, when the test began to be rolled out across the corporate world, more than 50 million people around the world are estimated to have taken it (A).

There are many free online variants of the MBTI, of varying quality. I give links to several that I have found useful.

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Skiing from Switzerland to France and back

I have recently been cleaning up old external drives that I’ve used over the years for backups and found a folder of photographs from a 2003 ski trip to Champèry. Champéry lies in a side valley of the Rhone valley under the Dents du Midi (“Teeth of Midday”) mountain range. Some of the photos really capture the beauty of skiing in this region, which is part of the Portes du Soleil (The Doors of the Sun). So I decided to put them up in this post. The Portes du Soleil is one of Europe’s two largest ski areas, around 1000 square kilometres, with 13 interconnected ski resorts and around 650 km of marked pistes, and includes Les Gets where we skied in February this year.

Looking down towards Champéry lying under the Dents du Midi on the other side of the valley

Continuing to head upwards from where the above photo was taken will bring you to the ridgeline which marks the Swiss border with France. Later in the day I skied down the other side into France and ended up in the Morzine valley, where I caught a chairlift back up to the top.

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Méribel mountain views

Some photos of the French Alps from the Saulire on the mountain ridge between Méribel and Courcheval. The Saulire is at 2738m and has spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, including Mont Blanc in the distance 63 km away. And then a thousand metre descent which made for great skiiing.

Looking west over the Méribel valley towards Val Torens

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Books by Colin Mathers

A comprehensive list of publications relating to my professional work is available at

Colin Mathers. Shall I try Australia? A history of the Mathers family in Ireland, Scotland and Australia from the 17th to the 21st century., Australia, 2010 (148 pages).

DSCN4793My great-grandfather, James Mathers, was born in Armagh, Ireland, in 1852 and moved to Scotland in the 1860s where he married Margaret Melrose. They migrated to Australia with their six surviving children in 1897. This book documents the history of the family in Australia, and traces the Mathers and Melrose ancestors in Ireland and Scotland back to the 1700s and earlier. The previous generation, born around the 1820s, were almost all illiterate labourers and coalminers. The subsequent history of the Mathers family encapsulates the dramatic changes in the educational, cultural and economic opportunities brought by the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

This edition of the book was available only to Mathers family members, and a second edition is planned. The second edition will include substantial additions and new information, not least because it has recently been discovered that James Mathers had an older sister, who migrated to Australia earlier, and whose existence was unknown to his descendents. Continue reading

Zen practice in Australia

I started practicing Zen with the Canberra Zen Group in 1992 following my separation from my first wife. I had become interested in Zen practice as part of my jujutsu training at black belt level. My jujutsu teacher had been exploring some of the inner (mind, spirit) aspects of budo with his yudansha students, and from around 1989 I had started to sit zazen fairly regularly at home.

The Canberra Zen Group met for zazen several times a week at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in the north of Canberra, and were also affiliated with the Sydney Zen Group who have a zendo in Annandale, where I used to live, and also have a retreat centre at Gorricks Run, a remote valley in the Northern Blue Mountains.

In 1993 I attended my first sesshin (7 day silent retreat) at Gorricks Run where the teacher was John Tarrant Roshi, the first Australian to be authorized to teach Zen. Tarrant Roshi had been a long-time student of Robert Aitken Roshi, one of the most influential figures in the transmission of Zen to the West.

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