Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Book of the Month: Independent Nation

I've had this book in my reading pile for a little while. With the tagline 'Should Wales leave the UK?', it's written by Wales Online Welsh Affairs editor Will Hayward to scrutinise both sides of the discussion about Welsh independence. 

I felt this was a decent review of the situation Wales is currently in. While Will points out that the idea that independence will help solve all of Wales's many problems is simplistic, he also strongly makes the case that the current status quo isn't going to do anything to solve those problems either. This is something I've talked about before when discussing my feelings about independence - 18 months ago when my friend Chris asked me whether I could really see a future for Wales as an independent country, I replied that I couldn't really see much of a future in the UK. This book acknowledges that things are bleak.

The problems we see in Wales - the high poverty rates, the demographic shift in society, the low quality infrastructure and the ongoing post-industrial trauma in the population's health are all covered by Will. And he pulls no punches at the lack of action from the UK government to do anything about them - inaction that has lasted for decades under whatever flavour government has been in charge. 

Will doesn't have much time for the sloganeering of Yes Cymru, harshly skewering claims that Wales could get by selling water and energy. He points out that if Wales went independent without an economic plan it would be ruinous, but plans could be made and, indeed, some people are already coming up with ideas. Will believes a solution is for Wales to find its 'niche' in the world - something it would be world-leading in.

He also recognises that independence provides an opportunity to recalibrate the economy in Wales and focus on other priorities rather than 'growth'. A constitution for Wales could focus on social justice and quality of life for all the people who live here with economic policy flowing from that. It was encouraging to have some other possibilities included in a serious political work instead of discussions of the economy just being the de facto Western idea that 'wealth' is measured in money.

The flipside of the book is an examination of the current political system, which is exposed as seriously lacking. The idea that the UK can persist with an 'unwritten constitution' is deeply unsatisfactory - as is the idea of Parliamentary sovereignty, which leaves the people of the UK at the mercy of charlatans and thieves. This isn't a theoretical criticism; the corruption in our current government shows that.

So what is the solution? Will doesn't give an opinion, although he does offer a range of options, showing this isn't a binary question. The most interesting scenario he paints is accidental independence - asking what would happen if England decided to opt out of the union. That's a feasible issue if Scotland went independent and there was a nationalist swing in England that saw Wales and Northern Ireland as more trouble than they're worth. 

If I had one criticism of this book, it's the author's tendency to insert himself into the narrative. As readers, we don't need to know which coffee shop he's met a politician in, or how he talked to an academic on a Zoom call. I know why authors add this colour in to their narratives - and Will doesn't do it as egregiously as some people do - but it's a distraction. There are other occasions where Will adds colour very successfully - for example, providing a short synopsis of the Aberfan disaster and how the UK government misappropriated the donations that were given to help the families of the victims who were killed.

But overall, that's a minor quibble for a book that I would recommend anyone with any level of interest in Welsh politics should consider reading. 

Friday, February 09, 2024

International Ice Hockey

A couple of weeks back, my friend Steve mentioned that Olympic qualifying ice hockey matches were taking place in Cardiff this month. Great Britain had three games lined up as part of their qualifying campaign and we decided to go and watch. Bryan and Tony joined us for a fun night out.

We went to the first evening game of the tournament - Great Britain v China. I was expecting a reasonably close game - GB are 20th in the World Rankings, while China are 26th. However, it turned into a bit of a blow out, with GB racking up a 10-1 victory.

GB came onto the ice in attack mode and peppered the China goal with shots. We were sat behind the goal, and the netminder was kept very busy. He did well to only concede two in the first period, making a number of fine reflex saves. 

The second period was quite dull for us because we were sat behind the GB goal and saw barely any action. Meanwhile at the other end of the rink, GB scored five goals. GB scored again at our end in the third period before China finally got a goal. I was feeling a bit sorry for them by that point so cheered when it went in. It's a long way to travel from China to Wales to then get tonked. 

It's rare I'm in a crowd that's chanting "We want ten! We want ten!" Even rarer that the crowd gets its wish. But the tenth goal went in to a loud cheer. We then had the amusement of a broken scoreboard reading GB 0-1 China, because it wouldn't display a two digit score. 

It was a very clean game, with a handful of players serving two minute penalties in the sin bin, for fairly innocuous fouls. There were no silly fights or roughing, which meant both teams just got on with the hockey. GB used the boards well, sending the puck round to players on the other side of the ice to switch the play with devastating effect. China had some good players but they played more as individuals rather than as a team and could rarely get on the offensive.

Great Britain are playing Serbia and Romania in their next two qualifiers over the weekend with the aim of making it through to the next round of qualifying. 

Every time I go to watch ice hockey I remember how much I enjoy it. Even watching the techs wielding power tools and driving big vehicles as part of the playing surface maintenance is fun!

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Making a tiny dent in the pile of shame

In the middle of 2021 I bought the starter set for the "second season" reboot of Blood Bowl. When I unboxed it I talked about all the lovely sprues of figures ready to be built.

And they remained on the sprue until last night, when I finally got round to building one figure - the star player for the Black Orc team.

Clipping fun!

So, a couple of things... This player's name is Varag Ghoulchewer. Except I modified the figure slightly. As supplied, Varag has half a corpse impaled on his shoulder spike. I didn't like the look of this so just left this piece off. 

Bits of this model were fiddly to build, particularly getting his head piece complete with the tusked chin-guard right. (I'm not totally sure I've got it glued together entirely correctly.) I ended up using a video off YouTube to help me get that part of the model assembled. 

As I've modded the figure I've renamed him Garav Foolchewer. He will still have the star player's characteristics, skill levels and abilities. 

The second thing is that this dent in the pile of shame feels more significant than it really is. Yes, I have finally built a model from the second season starter box. But there are still two full teams in the box that are untouched on their sprues. Plus I have bought two other teams that are still on the sprue since I last listed all the unbuilt stuff I had. 

My current roster looks like this:
Human team - built and half painted, along with an ogre who needs to be repainted because he's currently in the wrong colour scheme
Orc team - built and mostly painted 
Lizard-men team - built and almost completely painted (including the bonus kroxigor figure)
Skaven (giant rat) team - built and painted, except for two star players who are (recently) built and unpainted
Necromantic Horror team - built and half painted
Wood elf team - built, unpainted. Although I have a treeman figure to go with this team who is mostly built and painted.
Human 'Imperial Nobility' team plus star player plus ogre - all on sprue
Black Orc team plus troll - still on sprue. The star player is built though!
Norse team - still on sprue
Elf (Elven Union) team - still on sprue

That's ten teams with four currently untouched in the pile of shame! 

But still, I've made a tiny little dent.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Snack of the month - pickled plum crisps from Japan

These crisps were in my Christmas stocking although I think Santa Claus may have had some help from my sister, Sarah (hi Sarah!)

According to the packaging Sweet & Sour Pickled Plum is a popular flavour in Japan. I can see why. The crisps were a unanimous hit among the three people (including me) who tried them. Cathy liked them a lot. Bryan gave them the thumbs up too. 

I wasn't sure what to expect with these. I was a bit trepidatious after the last crisps to feature as my snack of the month were totally disgusting. Pickled Plum tasted like a slightly sweet salt and vinegar flavour. The sweetness gave the vinegar flavour a tangy edge that was very moreish. The crisps were nice too, crunchy but not cut too thick and not too oily, either. 

So overall, a very nice snack which maintains the success rate of decent snack-of-the-month snacks for 2024.

Friday, February 02, 2024

Football recap of the month - January 2024

Into the new year with a bang! 

My game numbering continues from December.

Game 33: Haughmond 1-0 Wem Town 

Reason for going: I was in Shrewsbury for the weekend and went with my nephew to watch this Shropshire County Premier League game.

Point of interest: The Shrewsbury Sports Village was my first new ground of the year. It's where the Shrewsbury Town Academy team play.

Game 34: Shrewsbury Town 0-1 Wrexham

Reason for going: Thanks to the FA Cup draw this was the first time Salop and Wrexham had locked horns in 15 years. Plus there's the whole Hollywood thing. 

Point of interest: This was the first sell out at the Meadow since the season they narrowly missed out on promotion and ended up losing the play off final at Wembley. Also - this was my 200th Shrewsbury game in my records.

Seven photographers! Usually there are two max.

Game 35: Cardiff Corinthians 1-1 Cardiff Draconians 

Reason for going: I fancied a local game instead of trogging to Aberystwyth to watch Barry.  (Although if I had gone on the bus to Aberystwyth I would have seen Barry win.)

Point of interest: The Corries play on a pitch that is half a cricket pitch. It's right next to the railway line so there's a good view of trains trundling past. They also have a clubhouse with a wall of old photos and news clippings. I love a good clubhouse wall full of archive stuff. 

Clubhouse full of history

Game 36: Cardiff Metropolitan WFC 0-1 Barry Town Ladies

Reason for going: This seemed a good way to fulfil my football fix for the weekend. One of my aims for the season was to see a women's game so this ticked this box too.

Point of interest: This was the 10th game I've seen at Cardiff Met's home ground in Cyncoed. It's the first time I've seen a Barry Town team win there!

Bonus football watching

I'm not counting it in my list of games, but this month I was able to watch my nephew, Zac, play for his Juniors team. He scored a screamer and set up two other goals in a 4-3 win.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Recap of the Month - January 2024

The first month of 2024 was very busy. I had two trips to Shrewsbury and two days in London, where I made the most of an evening to myself and visited the new Lego Shop in Battersea Power Station.

But first, a couple of "train" photos. 

New Lego minifigures released!

New silly photo opportunities in Asda!

The first trip to Shrewsbury was to see Shrewsbury play Wrexham in the FA Cup. More details to follow on my football recap thread. The second trip was for a combined birthday weekend, that included my youngest nephew's birthday party at a soft play centre, my brother's actual birthday. and seeing my mum on her birthday eve! So there was lots of present-opening and other fun. 

Mum and Dave shared a cake 

And Fred willingly got wrapped up in a blanket!

There has been some other sporting action as well, with two Blood Bowl games. You can read up on how the orcs lost to the lizardmen here, and how the humans beat the dwarfs here. I also managed to read a hefty science-fiction book (over 500 pages) which was my book of the month

On the final weekend of the month the Friends of Grange Gardens supported an activity morning as part the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch. It was well attended as kids built bird feeders and learned about nests.

I was on bird wrangling duties, looking after Terry Dactil, the orange hoopoe from Newport. (He had a complicated back story.)

Thankfully I survived my encounter! So, here comes February. Let's see how quickly it flies past. 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Blood Bowl Update - new star players and another match report

2024 has got off to a good start in terms of Bood Bowl. This week Bryan and I played our second game of the year. And I've gone on and finally built two star players that have been sitting in my "pile of shame" for way too long.

And here they are:

Both of the star players are 'skaven', a race that are basically giant mutant rats. The chonky one is Glart Smashrip, a bulky blocker. The one with two heads and four arms is Hakflem Skuttlespike, a mutant bred in a lab who plays as a blitzer.

The models come from Forgeworld, which is the Games Workshop online specialist service. They are made from resin rather than plastic.

They arrive in these horrible clamshell cases that need to be cut open.

Then they need washing before the glueing starts. Washing up liquid is fine for this.

And then the glueing starts. Because they are resin they require superglue. I used some cheapie superglue in small tubes.

The models were very fiddly to assemble. Hakflem's arms didn't want to stick and Glart's tail was very awkward. As a result I ended up with much more superglue on my fingertips than I wanted!

The skaven weren't in action this month. The latest game was between my human team (bolstered by an ogre) and Bryan's dwarfs. Neither team are fully painted. The human team uniforms are actually chocolate and cream although they don't look it in the pictures. The ogre is in an old colour scheme so doesn't match.

It was a fun game and the humans won, with one catcher sprinting for the end zone and rushing two extra yards to score the second down on the very, very last turn of the game.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Book of the Month: Eyes of the Void

This review contains some mild spoilers for this series of books.

This is the first sequel to November's book of the month, Shards of Earth. I added this to my wishlist and got it for Christmas from my friend Terri. (Thank you Terri!)

I started reading it during the Christmas break and found it as compelling as the initial novel in the series. It continues the story about the deadly Architects who destroy planets and kill millions of beings in the process. 

There was a twist at the end of the first book as one of the main protagonists, Idris, the semi-mystical, partly-psychic, spaceship navigator 'Intermediary' discovered that the Architects were compelled in their destruction by some hitherto unknown greater force. A good chunk of this book is about Idris trying to work out exactly what that force is, using ancient technology left behind by a disappeared race nicknamed the Originators.

At the core of this mystery is the idea of 'unspace', a sort of unreal netherworld existing on a different plane of existence that humans and other beings can use to travel between star systems. It has its own un-reality and is the source of the Architects and their unknown master.

The author, Adrian Tchaikovsky, expands the universe he has created, with increased roles for several alien races. I liked how he makes them really alien, in terms of their culture, traditions and logic. They remain mysterious and ineffable even as they interact with the main characters in the novel. 

There is also an interesting sub-plot concerning an AI being called a Hiver and their relationship with their former owner. The Hiver has become an authority on the ruins and artefacts of the Originators and the human academic considers this stealing and plagiarism. Rows ensue, but the sub-plot reaches a deeply poignant conclusion in a scene that made me feel quite sad. 

AI or machine characters are difficult to get right, but I found the way they appear in this book very engaging. As mentioned before, these are probably the most sympathetic AI characters since the Minds and sentient drones in the Culture novels by Iain M Banks. They add an interesting layer to this series along with the well-drawn alien races. 

The plot bounces through several worlds as the main characters get pulled together towards a showdown of sorts on a particularly deadly planet. I won't describe it because that would be a spoiler but as "death worlds" go, it's an absolute doozy. 

The ending is a bit cliff-hangerey. There's a third book to come, which I think will be the final instalment. However, I reckon you could read this novel as a standalone or as the first point of entry into the storyline. The events of the previous book get referred to and explained at various points. 

I will be adding the third book to my wishlist as soon as it comes out in paperback. I'm not sure if that will be in time for my birthday...

Friday, January 19, 2024

Cheerful electric box

Seeing "faces" in inanimate objects is a common human bias, a natural heuristic fallacy that fools us. But on the other hand this electrical box I saw on the wall of a hotel looked really pleased to see me!

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Power shopping!

A work trip to London this week included an evening to amuse myself, so I took the tube to visit Battersea Power Station. This has been done up as a premium shopping experience. Among the stores is a brand new Lego Shop. I'd packed my Lego passports in the hope of getting them stamped.

The exterior of the Power Station looks very pretty lit up at night.

Inside, the vastness of the former turbine halls is awe inspiring.

I found the Lego Shop and admired some of the artefacts within. Of note, the 'build a minifigure' station, and the Power Station replicated in Lego and depicted on a frieze made out of Lego bricks.

I was also looking for somewhere to eat. I found this place...

I phoned Cathy while waiting for my order. I told her I was in a restaurant called 'Where the pancakes are' and she said "Well, I know why you're there!" Well, where else would I be if that was where the pancakes were?

I had something called a 'Dutch baby' - think of a Yorkshire pudding made with apples and almonds, served with a scoop of ice cream. 

After that rather filling meal, I had another wander around the shopping arcade, which is full of original bits and bobs. 

There was something gloriously optimistic about the way the building had been transformed. It had an authentic industrial chic and worked with it to create a futuristic feeling space. I don't usually rave on about shopping centres, but this was special.