Thursday 7 July 2016

Coping with two Kids

It's an interesting, and in some ways overwhelming, sensation have a second child. On the one hand I am without a doubt excited about having a son. I'm already planning the things that I want to introduce to him, the games and movies I want to share. But on the other hand the thought of balancing my time and efforts between Edward and my daughter, Abby, who is about two and a half years old is absolutely daunting. I really don't know how I'm going to do it, and in many ways I am worried about letting Edward or Abby down.

How Do I Split Time Between my Kids?

One of the things I really hated growing up was hypocrisy between how the siblings were treated. That's not to say my mum and dad were bad parents, far from it, but I am the oldest of five kids and with that sort of work load it was easy for my parents to accidentally fall into patterns that favoured some of the children over others in some situations. So one of my goals was to treat my two children equally, splitting time and energy in a more-or-less fair division between them.

And in some ways I feel like I've already failed.

During Abby's pregnancy I bought a whole lot of toys. For Edward I bought none. We already have a bunch of toys and clothes, so buying more seemed a little redundant and we needed the money for other things. But that now means Abby got everything brand new, while Edward is already having to deal with hand-me-downs.

Prior to Abby being born we went to the Christchurch botanic gardens to get pregnancy photographs. We did this again a few weeks before Edwards birth. But looking through family photographs last night it was clear that we got far more photographs of Abby's pregnancy than we did of Edwards. We still got very nice photo's of Edwards pregnancy. But with Abby's photo's we hit more locations, had more poses, and just generally spent more time doing it and got more pictures. This was partly because with Edwards pregnancy photo's we already had Abby. We were tired (raising a toddler requires a lot of effort), and had Abby with us - and she has a limited amount of time before she gets tired and bored. We had to be a lot more strategic with our time.  

Abby was born by cesarean section, which required my wife to stay in hospital for a week recovering. I visited the hospital every day, arriving just after visiting hours started and staying into the evening. Changing nappies, talking to Abby, playing. After Edward was born my wife spent three days in the hospital resting. But because I had Abby I could only spend a 3 - 4 hours at the hospital each day. The rest of the time was spent looking after Abby, doing the parenting thing.

In the end I know this is all part of having a toddler. It's not so much a bias towards Abby, or against Edward, as much as it is just a straight up different situation. The first time round we didn't have a toddler and could take things at a different pace. This time we had other obligations that squeezed our financial and time resources in other directions.

But still, going forward I am going to have to figure out a way to give Edward the same opportunities and attention that Abby has been enjoying for the last couple of years.

Dealing with Tiredness and a Grumpy Toddler

One of the things I have been finding really difficult is Abby's behaviour. Normally Abby is a really good kid. Polite and really well behaved. In the weeks before Edward's birth she was going through a bit of an independent streak - typical toddler stuff. It's called the 'terrible twos' for a reason. But Edward's arrival has kicked that into high gear.

She has been refusing to eat (in fact she had to be hand fed this morning), making messes, refusing to follow instructions, being demanding and argumentative, and procrastinating. She is also constantly whining. We have also had some jealousy issues. Getting grumpy when I change Edward's nappy, or demanding cuddles when my wife is breast feeding. Although, thankfully, she doesn't appear to have any ill feelings towards Edward himself.

I'm sure it's just a phase, and I'm sure it'll pass soon enough. But it is mentally exhausting. Particularly when Edward has had a rough night and I am physically exhausted as well. 

I've been finding that I have less and less patients for her, and I'm getting increasingly frustrated over what I would have previously considered small one off things. But she has had this negative attitude for 14 days now, and it starts grinding you down. 

And I feel really bad about it. Sometimes I think I forget she is only 2 years old, and perhaps subconsciously expect her to act older than she is now that she is a big sister. She has been through a large life altering event, and I need to acknowledge that.

But at the same time it is hard to be constantly fighting against a two year old. She has little understanding of consequence, and limited language skills, so you can't really negotiate with her. I also refuse to smack her or use other physical punishments as I see that as child abuse. She does respond a little to time out in her bedroom, or threatening to take things away - but these are temporary fixes that only really correct the immediate bad behaviour in that immediate situation. 

It means that the only option you really have left is feeling frustrated and upset. This leads to having a short temper, and taking aggressive tones of voice and body stances towards her, and sometimes yelling. And then you feel bad about doing that, which feeds back into the frustration.

That said, it hasn't been all bad. We still try and make sure she still gets treats, trips to play grounds and cafe's, and good one on one play time with her dad. And when we are playing we have a great time. But as soon as the focus is no longer 100% on her the attitude comes back.

I don't want her to feel that she is worse off because of Edward's arrival. But I'm exhausted, and I really really hope this will pass soon.

Finding Time for Myself With a New Born and Toddler

Another thing I struggle with a little is finding time for myself in amongst all this parenting stuff. I know many people would say that is what parenting is all about, and I should get over it. But realistically you need down time.

Currently my average week day looks like this:

6:00 am: alarm goes off.
7:00 am: leave home on 1 hour commute to the office.
6:00 pm: arrive home after 1 hour commute. Have a coffee / play with Abby.
6:30 pm: start Abby's bed time routine.
7:30 pm: Abby finally asleep. Then cooking dinner.
8:00 pm: eating dinner.
9:30 pm: bed time / barely awake.

So I have about an hour each day to myself - most nights I'm not even sitting down before 8:00 pm. The weekends are usually spent entertaining / educating Abby. We try to do an activity each day which usually means leaving home at 10:00 am and getting back around 3:00 pm. Then Abby's dinner time starts at 5:00 pm an the cycle starts again.

For a while now I have been wanting to do some professional development to broaden my future employment prospects (my current job is somewhat temporary). Ideally I'd like to get into coding, and have several projects I'd like to try out. But ultimately I feel that I simply don't have the time.

Every day I have to choose how my limited time is allocated between professional development, gaming, and chilling out with my wife on the couch (the only real time I get to do this, and something I don't want to miss out on).

There is simply not enough hours in the day. If I spend time on my desktop I can feel like I'm neglecting my wife. Spend a couple of nights looking into professional development and I feel over worked and burnt out. But if I don't think about my future employment prospects then I start to worry about money and failing to reach my life's goals. I almost feel like I'm in this perpetual holding pattern where I can't find enough time to do anything. Like I'm firmly entrenched.

God knows how I'm going to fit Edward's bed time into the mix when he gets old enough to need a scheduled bed time routine.

I think ultimately I need to work out a better way to distribute my time. It might be that I need to find a more local job to cut out the commute time, or something that pays a little better so I can work less hours (or both).

It's Not Actually All That Bad

Reading over this post it comes across as I'm being really negative about having my two kids. This isn't the case. I actually really enjoy Abby. I love watching her grow and learn and develop. I love playing with her. I love sharing my interests (she is now into Star Wars in a massive way). I love watching her develop her own personality. I love the way she kisses me on the cheek and tells me she loves me. And I love having her in my life.

The same will be true for Edward. I'm looking forward to developing that father-son relationship and having him as part of my life. Not to mention that at the moment he is adorable.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Consider this post the tired ramblings of someone who hasn't had a full nights sleep in over two weeks...

A new son is born!

I would like to announce the arrival of my son, Edward Louis Hennessey, who was born on Friday 24th of June 2016, at a slightly smaller weight of 2.98kg. 

I also want to give a huge shout out to my amazing wife who managed two days of heavy latent labour, four hours of active labour, and a natural birth without any pain killers or anesthesia. Amazing!

Monday 7 March 2016

Death of Dick Smith Electronics (or why Dick Smith sucked)

It was announced last week that, after being in receivership since the beginning of the year,  electronics retailer Dick Smith is closing down. And to be honest, it is something of an end of an era. I have very good memories of Dick Smith growing up. And I’m honestly sad to see it go, if for nostalgia if nothing else.

But in reality haven’t really shopped there in nearly a decade, and I’m actually surprised that it lasted this long. In all honesty, I think most techie type people have seen this coming for years.

But I can’t help but reminisce on the loss. In many ways Dick Smith Electronics is a case study of how not to run an electronics store. It’s almost like watching a car crash in slow motion. You don’t necessarily want to look, but there is a kind of morbid fascination. How exactly do you take a fairly successful and profitable hobbyist electronics store and slowly nose dive it into the ground over 30 years?

For those not in the know, Dick Smith Electronics (DSE) was an Australian and New Zealand retail electronics chain established in 1968 by entrepreneur Richard “Dick” Smith as an Australian version of Radio Shack, selling electronic components and eventually personal computers. What made DSE different to the other electronics component retailers of the era is that it sold its components cheap and in a bulk bin format that allowed people to pick and mix exactly what they wanted. In the early 1980’s Dick Smith Electronics was sold to Woolworths Ltd, a retailer specialising in supermarkets, department stores and hotels, which aimed to use it as its consumer electronics division.

Ultimately, the final nail in the DSE coffin was its 2012 sale to Anchorage Capital Partners after Woolworths finally discovered that consumer electronics was a sinking ship. Anchorage purchased the chain for A$115 million (only $10 million of which was a cash payment from Anchorage, the rest coming mostly from the sale of inventory), wrote done A$58 million of inventory, then turned around and floated the chain on the stock exchange at a value of A$520 million, held a fire sale to exaggerate sales figures for 2013, and took out massive loans against the company. Effectively bleeding every last cent that they could before scuttling it. (See the excellent analyses by Matt Ryan and Trevor Sykes from where all these numbers are taken).

But DSE had been in a steady decline for at least a decade, probably more.

I have very fond memories of shopping at DSE as a kid in the 90s. Back then it sold computer components, custom built rigs, electronic components, tools for working with electronics, cables, computer games, and unique and interesting electronics based toys.You could spend hours there just browsing all the cool stuff they had.

Dick Smith VZ200 (image: UQ Physics Museum).
I remember when I was about 10 my parents bought me a neat starter electronics kit for building a metal detector. You couldn’t get these sorts of toys anywhere else (well, not in Christchurch anyway). If you were into electronics or computers Dick Smith was the place to go. In fact the first computer I ever used - the VZ200 - was purchased by my dad from DSE in the early 1980s. And my copy of Command and Conquer: Red Alert came from the DSE store in Papanui - which closed down about a decade ago.

And DSE also had a fairly good student discount. In the early to mid 2000s when I was building PCs DSE was one of my go-to places for buying components and software. The first ever PC expansion card I purchased for myself came from Dick Smith - a DSE branded TV capture card.

DSE was a place that I would have happily recommended back in the 90s and early 2000s.

So what happened?

Woolworths and Consumer Electronics

At some point Woolworths decided that it wanted DSE to focus on consumer electronics. TVs, laptops, game consoles, e-readers, tablets, mp3 players, Apple products, cell phones, that sort of stuff. Over time consumer electronics completely pushed out electronic components, computer components, and electronic kits and toys. By about 2008-2009 DSE had stopped selling computer components pretty much entirely. This coincided with a rebranding of the chain, dropping the word “electronics” from the name, and replacing it with the stupid “Talk to the Techxperts”.

After the sale of DSE to Anchorage Capital Pertners in 2012 the direction of the business changed again. From 2012 it began selling kitchen gadgets. Blenders, toasters, kettles, microwaves, coffee machines and the like.

I visited the Westfield mall store last year looking for some solder and a soldering iron. The electronics section had been reduced to a single set of shelves about 1 m wide, 1 m tall. Gone were the cable spools. Gone were the bulk bins of components. And gone were the electronics tools. Dick Smith - a retailer established to cater to the hobbyist electronics enthusiast - no long sold soldering irons or solder!

Presumably Woolworths felt that it could make more revenue by tapping into the larger, non tech savvy, population. The ‘normal’ folk. The people who are more interested in buying a Mac than building a PC. And to an extent I get it. Kind of. Why sell resisters at 10 for $1 when you could be selling $1500 televisions? Perhaps they thought that tapping into a larger customer base would produce more sales, and therefore more profits?

But the thing is DSE was successful because it filled a niche. Yes, the customer pool was small. But back in the day under the management of Dick Smith, DSE was profitable as a specialist electronics retailer because of some key points:

  1. Overheads were kept as low as possible.

  2. While the items being sold were cheap, the profit margins per sale were high - up to 25c in the dollar (compared to as low as 4.68c in the dollar for consumer electronics). People are more likely to make multiple small purchases in a small amount of time than they are to make large purchases. So while hobbyists may only spend $20-$40 a visit, they might also be visiting every other weekend. So in the long run you earn more from that hobbyist buying 10c resisters every week than you are from a person who drops $500 on a TV or cell phone every 6-12 months. 

By contrast Woolworths was pushing DSE into a market that is very difficult to break into. In order to make profits from consumer electronics you need a to push a lot of sales. This means you need lots of foot traffic and lots of floor space. DSE started popping up in expensive large shopping mall locations rather than the stand alone stores it used to occupy. Overheads went through the roof, and so product prices also had to go up to match.

But the consumer electronics space is also saturated. Low end consumer electronics retail was already dominated by the likes of K-Mart, The Warehouse, and JB Hi-fi, while high the high end marketplace had Harvey Norman, Smith City, Noel Leeming and Briscoes. These were well established and well known chains, and many people already had loyalties to their favourite stores due to loyalty programs, financing deals for long standing customers, and brand recognition.

This was brand recognition suicide for Dick Smith. People knew DSE as a technology retailer, not somewhere that sold TVs. And in reality, Dick Smith couldn't compete with the other consumer electronics retailers - their competitors often had a larger range of stock and larger floor spaces as they could subsidise consumer electronics other high margin merchandise like furniture and whiteware.

So to keep the lights on DSE had to jack up the prices. Dick Smith went from a place that sold targeted electronics items, unique toys, and cheapish computer parts to a loyal customer base, to a place that sold $55 HDMI cables and would heavily push extended warranties and high margin accessories to scrape every last cent out of a sale. DSE became one of the most expensive places to buy PC parts.

In the end, people who were in the market for consumer electronics kept going to the stores they had always gone to, while the customer base that was previously loyal to DSE either went elsewhere to find better deals, or found that DSE simply no longer stocked the product they were after.

To top it all off, the niche space that DSE left behind was rapidly filled by other retailers. By the mid to late 2000s if someone asked me about buying computers I would send them to PB Tech. Components and cables? Jaycar.

Bad Customer Service

From about 2006 the service at DSE took a bit of a dive. To be clear, the staff were nice people for the most part. Friendly and approachable. But it was clear that they weren’t being trained to be knowledgeable of the gear they were selling. Presumably Woolworths dropped staff training to lower overheads.

I remember going to my local DSE around 2008 to pick up some SATA cables, a molex y-splitter, and a 120 mm case fan. Got intercepted by a staff member as I enter the store, he asks me what I’m after, I explain that I want a SATA cable to connect my new DVD writer. He looks at me, and then says that he doesn’t think they make DVD writers with SATA ports… Um, thanks for the advice buddy… And as it was they no longer sold SATA cables or case fans.

On another trip I was helping a friend buy a laptop. It was clear that the staff member helping us was a little out of his league selling computers, struggling to answer basic questions about the various hardware on offer. A question about the dead pixel warranty really stumped him, and resulted in a blank stare from the staff member, before being told that he didn't think Toshiba has a dead or stuck pixel policy… What, none at all? Talk to the Techxperts indeed.

To reiterate, the staff were good friendly people. I don't have anything personal against the staff (with two major exceptions). They were a good bunch, and I am generalising here. But at least from my point of view it was clear that by the late 2000s Woolworths was happy to employ people with little technical savvy, and wasn't offering the training to bring them up to speed.

DSE wasn't really a place that could give you good advice. This was a big contrast to specialist computer stores like PB Tech who seem to only employ computer geeks. Even entry level department stores like Warehouse Stationery employed computer specialists to sell their laptops. This was a big reason why computer enthusiasts such as myself often warned people against going to DSE.

But, customer service got soooo much worse.

Dick Smith Nintendo DS Fiasco

The background: back in 2006 I was a student at Otago University, and was staying at my parents in North Canterbury for a couple of weeks over the Christmas holidays. I didn't own a car, and the Christchurch CBD was a good hours bus ride from my parents house. I’m a big introvert and avoid getting into fights. I’m very good at keeping my cool. I didn’t yell or get abusive, but I was holding my ground. The following story took place over about 5 days.

Back in 2006 Dick Smith had a 14 day change of mind money back guarantee which stated:

Shop with confidence with our 14 day money back guarantee. For 'Change of Mind' purchases, goods can only be accepted for refund or exchange in unmarked, original condition and packaging, complete with all instruction books, accessories, etc. All returns must be accompanied by your Sales Docket.

I also want to point out that purchases from retail stores are protected by the by the consumer guarantees act (1993) which states that retailers must offer either a replacement, repair or refund on goods that are damaged or otherwise not fit for purpose.

Anyway, I was looking to buy a DS lite, which had been released earlier that year. These things were sold out everywhere, except Dick Smith. So my wife and I were in the central city doing some shopping and I decided to pop into DSE to make a purchase. Get home, give the DS a charge, turn it on…. and it starts making a loud, headache inducing, high pitched squeal….

Now this is an uncommon but not unknown problem with the DS lite, and is due to a lack of shielding between the bottom LCD and the capacitive touch layer. Nearly a decade later there are instructions to fix it online, and it’s actually a fairly easy repair. But these didn't exist at the time, and being a cash strapped student I didn't want to risk voiding warranties.

I took the console back to the store I purchased it from. The staff member turned it on, heard the squealing, and replaced it with a new one. Good on him. But I got home, charged the new DS, turned it on…. and squeaaaaaaaaal. Fuck.

So the next day I went to exchange it again. I couldn't get a ride into the CBD, so opted to go to the closer store that was only 30 minutes away instead. This time I was served by a middle aged woman who was absolutely determined not to help me. She turned on the DS to listen to it, while standing next to a television playing guitar hero, at the front of the store with all the foot traffic, and also next to the cashier desk… And then bluntly informed me she couldn’t hear it. Of course she couldn’t…. She had intentionally given herself the worst possible chance of hearing it.

This led into a couple of minutes of heated debate. Would she exchange it? No. Would she give me store credit? No. Would she send it for a repair? No. This woman was incredibly blunt, and frankly very rude. Even going as far as to call me a liar, and telling me I was making it up to get a refund. Really? If all I wanted was my money back I shouldn’t have to make up some lie about the device being broken as Dick Smith had a 14 day change-of-mind money back refund policy!

She finally conceded that a 55 year old standing next to a TV perhaps wasn't the best person to access a high pitched sound, so she called over a younger employee. Who stood in the exact same place - the noisiest part of the store - and again proclaimed he couldn’t hear it. Oh come on man, at least try!

I then asked him to move away from the front of the store, which he did. And finally, finally, he could hear it! Yes, the DS was emitting a squeal, yes it was defective.

So was the original staff member going to exchange it? Hell no! I can only assume that she didn’t want to be wrong, but she wouldn’t exchange it. No reason given, they just wouldn’t do it. Consumer guarantees act? Dick Smith's own money back guarantee? Nope. Wouldn’t even discuss it.

Left the shop extremely annoyed.

So the next day, Sunday, I decided that I’ll take it back to the store I originally purchased it from. But it turned out the store was closed, so I went to another store in the CBD that was open. My dad offered to give me a ride, and came into the store with me and my wife.

I was served by a person who identified himself as the regional manager. I explained the situation, and that I wanted a refund. Now this went down hill extremely quickly. He had been told that I was at the other store the previous day. He wouldn’t even look at the DS. Instead he got very aggressive. He accused me of trying to scam them - apparently the reason that I was going to different stores was to run some sort of hustle. He was extremely blunt, and was getting increasingly aggressive in his body language and tone of voice.

So this continued for a couple of minutes until my dad spoke up and asked if we could simply return the DS under the 14 day change-of-mind money back guarantee. The unit had not been used and the packaging was in mint condition. So if, as asserted by DSE, the unit isn’t broken, then it would be Dick Smith policy to refund the purchase price no questions asked.

(It should be noted that the consumer guarantees act allows the customer to have a support person speak on their behalf).

Well, the guy appeared to take this as some sort of personal insult. He very sternly told my dad that if he spoke again that he would call the police and have him escorted from the store!

So not only was Dick Smith in breach of the consumer guarantees act and it’s own store policy, but I, a 10 year customer, was being called a liar and a scammer while my father, a 30 year customer, was being threatened with police action for asking for a refund! All over a ~NZ$220 gaming console...

Now, the guy must have realised that he had messed up at this point because his demeanor changed, and about a minute later he gave me the full refund.

And I vowed never to buy anything substantial from DSE ever again.

The cracked laptop screen

In 2012 DSE started an ad campaign using 
sex puns. Image:
Another story, this time the store involved was in south Dunedin. Around 2008 one of my friends needed a laptop for university, specifically a Toshiba, and DSE had the cheapest price. So, against my better judgement we went to Dick Smith to make a purchase. Now after dealing with the staff member that was a little out of his league discussed above we got the laptop home, opened the box, turned it on….. And there was a diagonal crack in the screen going from corner to corner.

So back we went to the store, and they wouldn’t exchange or refund - they would only offer a repair...

Ok, so under the consumer guarantees act the store is allowed to choose which of the three options they go with. But come on DSE! The laptop was sold in this condition. It’s not like it broke six months down the line and we were bringing it in for servicing. It was sold that morning with a cracked screen. It was already broken when it was on the shelf. You sold him an actual broken product, and have other, presumably not broken, laptops in stock. Why can’t you just exchange it for another unit?

Alrighty, well, could we return it under the 14 day guarantee? Nope, because it’s damaged. But we are in fact returning it in the same condition that it left the store in. No, they don’t accept returns on damaged goods regardless. Figures.

Ok, we’ll get it fixed. When can we pick it up. Well they have to send it away so it’ll take 4 - 6 weeks…. Oh what the hell! It will take 4 - 6 weeks to do a repair that any technician with even a basic level of experience should be able to do in an hour?

So Dick Smith sells you an actual broken computer, with a visible and immediately diagnosable defect. The laptop was broken either in transit to the store or when it was in the store itself. But rather than exchange it like any other retailer would, the customer is being punished with a 4 - 6 week wait time for a repair. The university semester would be half over in 6 weeks!

I once had a brand new laptop replaced by Global PC because of a single dead pixel!

With that I told my friend to refuse the repair. We then took the laptop to The Laptop Company, who are a Toshiba service agent. They fixed the screen under the manufacturer's warranty and he had it back the next day.

Why does DSE need to send the laptop to Auckland to fix it? Why do they not employ a single person who can also act as a service technician? Why would it take 4 - 6 weeks to perform such a simple repair? Why didn’t DSE simply recommend The Laptop Company as a servicing agent?

Who the fuck knows.

Could it have been saved?

So that’s my 2 cents. Could Dick Smith have been saved? Probably not. Woolworths wanted it to go head to head with Harvey Norman, and that simply wasn't going to happen.

But would it have survived if Dick Smith the man never sold it? Yea I think so. If it had followed the original direction of keeping overheads as low as possible.

It could be said that the DIY electronics market has declined significantly (although Jaycar is doing very well, so who knows). But that decline could have been matched through growth in PC components. DSE  had (and still has) a strong brand recognition as a technology retailer. The chain could have capitalised on that and remade itself into a specialist computer store through the PC boom of the late 90s and 2000s. Selling computer parts, systems and electronics kits and components, and most importantly, high margin software products and servicing. Really advertised itself as THE place to go for technology.

Then as the consumer PC market declined in the 2010s DSE could have moved into tablets and smart phones to cover margins, while at the same time rebranding itself to attract PC gamers to bolster the sale of PC parts. PC gaming is the strongest it has been in years! At the same time they could be  capitalising on the small resurgence in high margin electronic components with the development of the Raspberry Pi and Arduino. Imagine Dick Smith as an official Element 14 stockest!

Oh, and if they had offered better staff training...
But then, who knows.

Anyway, I truly hope the staff can all find new jobs quickly. This entire situation must suck hard for the floor staff taking abuse from all directions. Perhaps with the exception of a certain middle aged woman, and one regional manager...

Sunday 10 January 2016

J.J. Abrams Hollywood Reporter Interview

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter  J.J. Abrams addressed criticisms that The Force Awakens is derivative of A New Hope. This is one of my larger disappointments with the The Force Awakens. The answer he gave was, well, lackluster and didn't really address the situation.

I should reiterate that I actually quite liked The Force Awakens. It's a good movie. But the similarity to A New Hope is one of my disappointments. There are some things that stand out to me in the interview that need addressing.

The full quotes are available on The Hollywood Reporter website.

"Star Wars is a kind of specific gorgeous concoction of George [Lucas]'s — that combines all sorts of things. Ultimately the structure of Star Wars itself is as classic and tried and true as you can get. It was itself derivative of all of these things that George loved so much, from the most obvious, Flash Gordon and Joseph Campbell, to the [Akira] Kurosawa references, to Westerns — I mean, all of these elements were part of what made Star Wars..."

Abrams opens with this statement arguing that a New Hope was itself a derivative work. The thrust of the argument being that this is the nature of Star Wars. Essentially, you can't single out The Force Awakens for being in a "a genre comfort zone" when A New Hope did the same thing.  The thing is, this isn't really true. And to an extent suggests that Abrams doesn't really understand the criticism.

Yes A New Hope was influenced by earlier works that Lucas enjoyed. But this is how art works - new artists take what they found enjoyable from earlier works, and build on them to make new unique art. Without Black Sabbath we wouldn't have Metallica. Without Bram Stokers Dracula we wouldn't have Interview with the Vampire. Without William Shakespeare's Hamlet we wouldn't have The Lion King. It could be said that all of these works derived from their predecessors, yet none would be considered derivative of their predecessors.

Likewise, Lucas's passion for the old Flash Gordon series may have influenced him to do an action sci-fi film. His interest in Japanese Samurai films may have been the inspiration for the Jedi. And westerns may have been the inspiration for the farm-boy turned hero story. But you can't say the Jedi were directly taken from Akira Kurosawa. Or that the assault on the death star was copied from Flash Gordon.

There is no previous work that you can point to and say 'well A New Hope is just a retelling of this other movie with a sci-fi skin over the top'. A New Hope is its own unique experience. It borrowed ideas from those earlier works, but it built on them and made something completely different. It was a new experience.

"What was important for me was introducing brand new characters using relationships that were embracing the history that we know to tell a story that is new — to go backwards to go forwards. So I understand that this movie... needed to take a couple of steps backwards into very familiar terrain, and using a structure of nobodies becoming somebodies defeating the baddies which is, again, I would argue, not a brand new concept, admittedly — but use that to do, I think, a far more important thing, which is introduce this young woman... [and] the first Storm Trooper we've ever seen who we get to know as a human being; to see the two of them have an adventure in a way that no one has had yet, with Han Solo..."

"...Yes, the bones of [The Force Awakens] we always knew would be a genre comfort zone, but what the thing looks like — we all have a skeleton that looks somewhat similar, but none of us look the same. To me, the important thing was not, 'What are the bones of this thing?' To me, it was meeting new characters who discover themselves that they are in a universe that is spiritual and that is optimistic, in a world where you meet people that will become your family."

I don't think anyone is arguing that The Force Awakens doesn't add anything new to Star Wars. I would even go as far to say that Kylo Ren is the best addition to the film franchise, well, since A New Hope. And the new film needed to focus on the new characters - no complaints there. The new characters are very well done.

And, yea, the story of a pauper rising to greatness was centuries old before Lucas told it. Agreed. But everyone understands that the everyman is the literary device trough which modern science fiction and fantasy stories are told. No one is arguing that you should avoid centuries old story telling archetypes that are considered fundamental to modern film making.  But to say that "the bones" of the story are the same, or that the film is in a "genre comfort zone" is completely underselling just how similar the two films are.

While Lucas may have taken the concept of the samurai and used it as the inspiration for the Jedi - The Force Awakens goes almost as far as it can in what it takes from A New Hope.

The setting is the same, the general environments are the same, the themes explored are the same, and Ray is Luke Skywalker. But if that is where it ended that would be fine. The major problem for me is that it replicates so many scenes from A New Hope. Maybe 80% of The Force Awakens is taken directly from the earlier film, to the point that in many ways the The Force Awakens could be considered an almost scene for scene retelling of a New Hope. And the scenes that are unique to The Force Awakens are fall of call backs to the earlier film.

Take any major scene from The Force Awakens, and there is either a corresponding scene in A New Hope where pretty much the exact same thing happened, or A New Hope is referenced in some way. 

It's good that you wanted to Rey and Finn to be relatable, and it's fine that you felt that the best way to do that was through a rags to riches story. But did Ray really need to live on a desert planet? Did BB-8 need to be given the secrete data? Did Maz Kanata's cantina really need to look like the Yavin 4 base? Did Han Solo's death actually have to be thematically the same as Ben Kenobi's? Did we really need another death star trench run? 

"...yes, they destroy a weapon at the end of this movie, but then something else happens which is, I think, far more critical and far more important — and I think even in that moment, when that is happening, the thing I think the audience is focused on and cares more about is not, 'Is that big planet gonna blow up?' — 'cause we all know it's gonna blow up. What you really care about is what's gonna happen in the forest between these two characters who are now alone."

The end battle between Ray, Finn and Kylo Ren was fantastic. Easily my favourite part of the film. The characters, the visuals, the audio, it all came together to make a perfect lightsaber battle.

But did it need to take place on yet another death star? With a countdown to the weapon firing and destroying the rebel, ahem resistance, base? While the resistance leadership huddled around a circular table watching the countdown? With an X-wing assault targeting the one weak spot in the battle station? With yet another trench run?

Could we not have had a different scenario?

This doesn't make The Force Awakens a bad film, but it is a bit disappointing. Ultimately what I wanted was a sequel to the original trilogy. A new story that added to the saga, and told of what happened to the rebellion as it formed in to the New Republic. I think this was a fair expectation - when you go to a sequel film you want to see more of what you enjoyed about the earlier films, you want it expanded upon. You don't want to see the exact same film over again with a new coat of paint. 

But The Force Awakens is more of a remake or soft reboot. It's the same film as A New Hope, and it feels like it. I came away with the sensation that I had seen this all before. That this story had already been done. That some scenes were straight up copies of the previous film. Everything is bigger and shinier. But it feels derivative.

And the worst thing is that the film almost goes out of its way to not add to the mythology of Star Wars. It doesn't tell you what is going on. What the state of the galaxy is. Why the New Republic is relying on the resistance. What the conflict is about.

The new characters are great. But the universe feels neglected.

What did Abrams Expect?

In the end I don't really understand why Abrams didn't see this coming.

For starters it's not like Star Wars is a forgotten franchise from decades ago that no one really remembers. If anything Star Wars has the most dedicated of fan bases. Even the casual fans have their favourite lines committed to memory. While many people of my generation grew up watching the original trilogy countless times. It is impossible that the similarity between the two films was going to go unnoticed.

And to be honest, sequels that have done this sort of thing in the past have also been called out as being derivative, and have suffered because of it. Ahem. Ghostbusters 2. Ahem. There is a history of fan reaction here.

Not to mention that it is no secrete that people are getting sick of remakes and reboots. People are getting tired of the same old stories being polished up and sold back to them. A fact that Abrams should have been extra aware of being that one of the biggest complaints that came out of the Star Trek community about Star Trek: Into Darkness was that it was derivative of The Wrath a Khan. Star Wars has a larger fan base than Star Trek, and The Force Awakens is far more derivative of A New Hope than Into Darkness is of Star Trek 2. A larger fan reaction should have been obvious.

Wednesday 6 January 2016

The Force Awakens: Second Viewing

I saw The Force Awakens for the second time yesterday, and I think it's fair to say that I enjoyed it a lot more on my second viewing. If you can look past the short comings of the plot, and the fuzzy science at play, there is a lot to like about this movie.

Excellent Characters

For starters the new characters are very well done. They all have personalities, depth, well defined and simple goals, and most importantly are relatable. There is more characterisation and complexity to these characters in this one film than there is for Obi Wan, Anakin and Padme in the entire prequel trilogy.

Kylo Ren in particular is very well done. There is true depth to this character. You can see and feel the anguish he is in being torn between his desire for power and greatness through the dark side, and the love for his family that keeps him anchored to the light. And while he portrays a strong exterior clad in black, behind a sold heavy mask that distorts and deepens his voice, he is actually very vulnerable and fragile. Like a child he is prone to bursts of emotion, tantrums, and a fear that he will never be good enough. And while strong with the force you can see that he is undisciplined and under trained. Even his lightsaber is unrefined and jagged. While his basic understanding of the force is better than Rey, training wise he is only a step or two above her - a raw unrefined talent.

And the characters play off each other extremely well. Poe's headstrong daredevil nature is countered by Finn's pragmatism. Kylo Ren is the embodiment of the dark side - chaotic, emotional and reliant on brute force, while Rey represents the light - strength through discipline, focus and attention to detail.

And Harrison Ford's performance is great. Han Solo is perhaps the most enjoyable part of this film. Although I would have liked to have spent more time on his relationship to Ben, when is it brought up you can feel the emotion he has for the loss of his son. It's really good work.


While I do feel that the film has pacing problems towards the end, individual scenes are shot extremely well. All the battle scenes are great, fast paced but not too fast and without the CGI clutter. The reactions Finn has to shooting down Tie Fighters, his reunion with Poe, Han's reaction to the Millennium Falcon, Rey's plight finding enough scrap for food - these all feel real, as if actual human beings are involved.

The portrayal of Kylo Ren in Han Solo's death scene is brilliant. The tension of Kylo with his internal conflict, standing eye to eye with the one person who is keeping him attached to the light. You can see just how much he is tearing himself apart. He could almost come back to the light side. And then you see the moment the dark sides wins - Kylo's face changes to be stern. This is paralleled by the extinguishing of the light from the nearby sun by the starkiller. And Kylo Ren removes that relationship that has held him back. Amazing.

And the light sabers! Ok, so while I would argue that the light saber fights in Empire and Jedi actually have more going for them from a character development and feel of tension, the light saber combat in The Force Awakens is easily the best in the series so far. It feels real. It feel less like a  choreographed dance, and more like two people who are actually intent on killing each other.

The last light saber fight is great. Especially with the surround sound giving you the sensation of being inside the snow storm - you feel like you're inside the action. Then we have a wounded Kylo first facing off against Finn - who has overcome his desire to run - and then Rey. During this fight you can see the moment that Rey figures out the force and uses it to her advantage. It's really good stuff with heaps of immersion.



As I predicted in my previous post, on my second viewing I was able to pick up on a lot more of the finer details of what is going on. For example, in her flashback we see that Rey was left with the shopkeeper when she is orphaned on Jakku. Presumably it was in his service that she learned her mechanical skills and how to fly - moving the junkers that the shopkeeper had been collecting. She also helped with the modifications made by the shopkeeper to the Millenium Falcon, hence why she was so familiar with the ships systems and how to fly it.

That Leia sent Ben to Luke because he was undisciplined. That the First Order officers were wearing the Imperial officer uniforms. The additional exposition that the resistance is a private army supported by the republic. That Han blames himself for loosing Ben. And that the First Order only became powerful after Luke Skywalker vanished (and that Leia feels at least a little responsible for it).

I feel that this movie will continue to get better with additional viewings.

Stuff I Still Don't Like

I still feel that the film has pacing issues towards the end. The starkillers destruction is abrupt and feels like it doesn't fit. To be honest, I kind of feel that they crammed too much stuff into the end of the movie. In the final act we have the starkiller destroyed, Rey's awakening into the force, the death of Han Solo and the discovery of Luke Skywalker. It comes off as a little bit rushed. Some of these plot threads could have been resolved in the next film.
I still find the use of deus ex machina distracting.

I still really wish that there was a little bit more exposition as to what is going on with the New Republic and the resistance. Where are the other star fighters from Return of the Jedi? Let alone the Mon Calamari cruisers and Nebulon B frigates...

And yea, The Force Awakens is derivative as it can get. It even takes from The Phantom Menace. Rey / Anakin grew up working for a scrap merchant who treated them as little more than slaves, and is a natural pilot and mechanic whose abilities are amplified by an innate sensitivity to the force. And we now have four Star Wars films that end with a star fighter attack on a space station.

Han Solo's Death

The death of Han Solo is perhaps the thing I'm least happy with. While the scene itself was very well done from Kylo Ren's perspective, I feel the same couldn't be said from Han Solo's perspective.

I still feel the decision to kill off Han was predictable and lacked overall tension. Kylo wasn't going to be redeemed, and it is obvious that Han is going to die.

I watched an interview with Abrams the other night where he states that he killed off Han because he needed to do something bold to make Kylo Ren a threat equal to Darth Vader. But, really, your bold move was to kill off a character that Harrison Ford and Lawrence Kasdan were begging to kill off back in Return of the Jedi?

And again, this scene would have had more tension and emotion from Han Solo's point of view had the relationship between the two been further explored. Really, this story could have been the major plot line of a movie itself - and in fact was in Return of the Jedi. Because the first half of the The Force Awakens concentrates on Rey and Finn (as it should) the story of Han and Ben is pushed right back to a second and third act secondary story.

The death scene depicts Kylo's final transition to the dark side extremely well. But the emotional impact of Han Solo's death is just lacking. If there was a history between these characters, if it appeared that Kylo's interaction with Han could actually be enough to turn him back, then the scene would have had far more tension, and Han's failure would have had far more impact. Perhaps if there had been interactions between the two characters earlier in the film. If Han had made previous attempts to rescue Ben, or if Kylo had in the past had let Han go, or saved him from a peril. If a relationship had actually been built up in the story.

Because as it stands Han has essentially been an uncommitted parent to Ben right up until this point.

  • For starters, once Ben became difficult as a child his parents sent him away to train under Luke rather than parent him themselves. Leia even says that she regrets this. And we know that Kylo has self esteem issues, that his greatest fear is underachieving. Being sent off to Luke for being difficult would likely have been seen by Ben as an abandonment by his parents because of his shortcomings. 

  • Secondly, when Ben turned to the dark side Han abandoned any effort to try and rescue him - instead, as he states, in grief he left Leia to go back to being a smuggler. So the movie states that there has been no real interaction between these two characters since Ben's perceived abandonment by his parents as a child.

So then we come to Han's death scene and we are presented with Kylo Ren having to choose between his father, a man who wasn't there for him as a child and who he hasn't even seen since his conversion to the dark side, and Snoke, a man who promises power, relief from his insecurities through training in the dark side, and a strong father figure. Of course Kylo sides with Snoke - it's an obvious and forgone conclusion.

Instead Han Solo's death relies on the fact that the audience already has a connection to this character through the original trilogy, and requires this connection to generate an emotional response. It's weak.

I think this plot line would have been better to resolve in the next film. Laying the foundations of Han and Kylo's relationship in this film, then exploring that relationship in the next so that Han's death has a real impact on the viewer.

Or just not have included it at all.

And Some Nitpicks

I have some minor nitpicks. These don't kill the movie for me, but are a distraction.

Starkiller base. Star Wars is all about being fuzzy with science - but I find the starkiller really immersion breaking. This space station is just so totally impractical that my brain collapses just thinking about it.

  • For starters, this thing sucks in stars, and prior to firing has the mass of an entire yellow star inside of itself. This would mean that it also has the gravity of that star. The energy required to create a dampening field necessary to stop the crew being crushed to a wet pulp on the floor must be beyond impractical.

  • Next, they are cramming a star roughly the size of our sun into a starkiller about the size of Mars. When the starkiller is destroyed we see the star is left behind - so they aren't breaking it up as they suck it in or anything, they are literally cramming a star into the starkiller. Would cramming the star into such a small space not make it incredibly unstable? Would it not accelerate the nuclear fusion making it a gigantic hydrogen bomb? Maybe this is what powers the weapon - but this thing could go boom at any moment, any malfunction in the priming or firing of the weapon, no matter how minor, would be catastrophic.

  • Likewise, containing the star inside the starkiller would require energy shields of some description. But the power requirement necessary to power shields capable of not only holding a star, but also compressing it into a space the size of a small planet would be ridiculous. It would take as much power to operate these shields as it does to power the weapon! Not to mention that if these shields were to fail in any part of the starkiller then the star wold expand out of that failed section of shielding destroying the base!

  • The starkiller is effectively a Dyson sphere and relies on its spherical shape to provide structural integrity. So don't even worry about finding the thermal oscillator, any damage to the superstructure of the base would be catastrophic. Pick any part of the starkiller that is exposed (i.e. not covered by the planets crust) and launch everything you have at it. Even if you didn't damage the superstructure to the point of collapse, any power failure in this area would also destroy the base. Honestly, this is where Y-Wings and B-Wings would have been invaluable.

  • Operating the starkiller requires destroying your own systems! For every New Republic system you destroy, you have to destroy one of your own systems to power the weapon... The ratio of destruction is close to 1 to 1. Ok, you could use stars in uninhabited systems to power the weapon - but any class M (to borrow from Trek) planets that are in the system are now completely uninhabitable. Any star bases or mining facilities in orbit are now flying off into space, as too are any asteroids or plants that could have been used for resources - including gas giants similar to Bespin. These planets are now flung off into space, their positions are not on your star charts, and are just cruising through space waiting to collide with your own ships traveling through hyperspace. Using the weapon weakens your own future strategic and economic positions.

  • You could move the starkiller into enemy space, using their stars to power the weapon - a double hit. But now you are putting a very vulnerable weapon directly into spitting distance of the enemy, defeating the purpose of building a weapon capable of attacking from behind your own lines in the first place! They may as well just built conventional death stars.

So the starkiller requires an enormous amount of energy just to prime the weapon, is so fragile that any minor malfunction to a major system will destroy the base, and when is does work it destroys your own systems... Good job First Order engineers.

Ok, moving on though - the Luke Skywalker star map is kind of a weak plot device. I can accept that the New Republic doesn't have access to the Jedi star map seen in Attack of the Clones - perhaps the Empire moved all that information to a secure location once the Rebellion kicked up and now the First Order only has access. 

But Kylo Ren tells Rey that they were able to put together the rest of the map from the Imperial archives. The missing part is only about 5  - 10 % of the total map, and contains a handful of star systems. You know from the Imperial archive the general location in the galaxy where Luke Skywalker is - why not send out a bunch of probe droids to search the hand full of planets in that unknown area?

And R2D2 put himself into low power mode after Luke left. But he has a nearly complete map to Luke minus that small missing piece. So how did the map get out? Was it put together from word of mouth - people that had spotted Luke on his travels? Then how did R2D2 get it? Did Luke make the map sans that small piece and left it with R2D2? Then how did the First Order get it? Why did R2D2 not pass on the map to the resistance? Perhaps Luke told him not to. But then why would Luke make a map in the first place? Why would R2 change his mind at the end of the film? So many questions....

Instead recovering the map form the First Order should have been one of the goals of the resistance.

Second Viewing Thoughts

So, yea, I like this movie. Even given its short comings. 

I would say story wise it's not as good as a New Hope or Empire Strikes Back. It is better than the prequels mostly because the prequels have a habit of not explaining key characters, contradict the original trilogy, have very poorly written characters and script. But I would put it slightly behind Return of the Jedi simply because of the derivative nature of the work.

Action wise it is really good. That last lightsaber duel was at least as good as the fights between Luke and Vader in Empire and Jedi. The X-wing battles are also really good. But I do feel that the space battle to defeat the second death star was superior to that to destroy the star killer. And the battle at the end of A New Hope had more tension.

If I was to rank the films I would put them: Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, Return of the Jedi / The Force Awakens (maybe equal), Revenge of the Sith, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones.