Monday, January 30, 2023

Book of the Month - The Age of Earthquakes

Around Christmas I caught up with my friend Edwin, who I first met almost 40 years ago at primary school. As long as I've known him, Edwin has been a reader of books and we enjoy talking about the books we have read recently on the occasions when we meet up. 

I didn't have many books to talk about when we met up last. My reading has dropped off a cliff since the pandemic. I felt challenged when Ed told me he had set an ambitious target of the number of books to read in 2023. I set myself a much lower target that feels a lot more attainable - a book a month.

I've started with a easy one. The Age of Earthquakes is a collaborative piece by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Cathy bought it for me as a surprise gift because she saw this copy for sale in Oxfam's online shop and it was signed by all three authors.


Despite looking like a full size paperback, several pages are just one thought-provoking line or question. So it was very quick to read through. The questions are things like...

  • Have you maybe noticed that our lives are no longer feeling like stories?
  • Are generations still measured in years? 

And the thought-provoking lines are things like...

  • Before the Internet we had a few memes a year. Now we get hundreds a day.
  • You know the future's really happening when you start feeling scared.

The book explains its title by pointing out that Internet use now accounts for ten per cent of the world's energy demands - or the same amount that was used to light the entire planet in 1985. The energy demands are pushing up global temperatures. The change in temperature is causing melting permafrost, glacial retreat and shrinking ice caps. As the weight of the ice decreases, this is releasing geologic pressure resulting in earthquakes. The mass of humanity logging into social media is literally having a seismic affect.

The recurring theme of the book is what does it mean to be human in an increasingly digital world. Hardly anyone is an analog human any more. We have digital personas and possess digital real estate. There are some common themes here from some of Douglas Coupland's other books that I've read recently, and some material that I've read before. I think it got repackaged into Machines Will Make Better Choices Than Humans or Shopping in Jail, or possibly both. 

Despite mapping out a possible future where humans are surpassed by their own digital selves, Coupland et al end on a relatively hopeful yet pessimistic note that is printed on the back cover. 


See what I mean about being hopeful and pessimistic?

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Snack of the Month - Topic gets resurrected

Although Topic bars have been discontinued, the Mars company have decided not to let a good brand name disappear, and have re-imagined Topic as a high end chocolate bar.


Mars are also using this to appeal to the growing vegan market - although vegans need to heed the warning in the top left corner.

In keeping with the environmental theme, the packaging is plastic free. The card sleeve and sealed foil inner packet are both recyclable.


This is basically Mars's version of 'fruit and nut'. The chocolate bar is fairly thin. 

There are a good proportion of hazelnut chunks and raisins in it and the chocolate tastes nice too. Maybe it's the vegan recipe but it's a better quality than I'd expect from Mars. 

So, overall, this is a welcome return for Topic.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Rediscovering Garbage

This past Christmas my brother and sister-in-law, Dave and Esther, picked a CD off my wishlist and gave me Anthology, a collection of 35 Garbage songs drawn from their seven studio albums (plus some extra tracks like the James Bond theme song they recorded). 

It's the second 'Best of' compilation the band have released. I thought I owned a copy of their first one, but I can't find it on the CD shelf with the other Garbage CDs. When I read my blog post about it from back in 2007, I realised that I probably never bought it. That came as a bit of a surprise, as I'm a completist when it comes to certain bands but it seems I'd grown a bit disenchanted with Garbage back then.

On a recent long trip to North Wales (blogged here) I listened to the 'Best of' several times. Disc 2 introduced me to some of Garbage's more "recent" material. By recent, I mean from 2012 onwards, when they released Not Your Kind of People

I own Not Your Kind of People. It was a Christmas gift off my wishlist back in 2015, from my other sister-in-law, Abby. I had put it on my wishlist after going to see Garbage that year, on their tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album, and not recognising one of the songs in the encore. I'm pretty sure, now, that the song was Automatic Systematic Habit, which is the first song off Not Your Kind of People

It was the third time we had been to a gig in Manchester. I really remember Shirley Manson was wearing a gorgeous leather kilt with metal stud patterns on it. And also looking round at the crowd and realising that as a generation we had grown old together. 

I must have listened to Not Your Kind of People when I first received it, but clearly it didn't penetrate. But after hearing the singles from the album on the Anthology, I have been playing it the last few days. The first four tracks were released as singles and they are all absolute bangers. The song Control is potentially up there with my all time favourite Garbage songs.

Discovering an album ten and a half years after it was released, and seven years after receiving it shows that sometimes the best music is sitting on your shelf all along. It's also a better reason for owning a 'Best of' than just because I'm a saddo completist. 

It's also triggered my completism about the re-released deluxe editions of Garbage's early albums. In the weeks since Christmas I've ordered the special anniversary editions of the first three albums, with their bonus discs of b-sides and remixes. My stack of Garbage CDs has grown considerably. I might even have to get a copy of their first 'Best of' just for completeness's sake. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

The machines are listening

Earlier this month I had a long conversation with my friend Gawain. We met online as we both collect baseball cards and occasionally we have chats about the sport, collecting cards and the state of the world. During the conversation I showed Gawain the Lego minifigure that another friend, Connor gave me last year.


It's a customised printed figure wearing a retro San Diego Padres uniform. Connor designed it using a machine at a Lego Discovery Centre. Gawain and I discussed how if someone started printing these off there would probably be a decent collector's market for them. He also listened to me patiently talking some more about Lego and how it is increasingly geared towards adult collectors. 

We were chatting on the Messenger app, which is part of Meta, the same company as Facebook and WhatsApp. The next day he sent me these screen grabs for adverts that appeared on his Facebook feed.


We weren't typing messages to each other. We were talking. And the machines were listening. I get ads related to Lego on my Facebook feed all the time, which I always assumed was down to the groups I'm in. But some intelligent system recognised Gawain talking about Lego and offered him some highly specialised services in those ads - the kind of ads that would be of interest to people who are collecting Lego to invest or are thinking of printing designs on minifigures. 

My most popular blog post of 2022 was about how I realised an app I use to track going to football matches was shaping my choices through gamification. Seeing a conversation with a friend turned into marketing algorithms by eavesdropping machines seems another step towards the hybrid interconnected world that Douglas Coupland keeps writing about

Weirdly I was reading a book called The Age of Earthquakes that Douglas Coupland contributed to around the same time as all this happened and this page stood out. It feels like this happened to me!

I know the irony of feeding the online accumulation of a digital version of me (my cloudganger) by blogging all this. The machines will be able to connect the digital dots - if they are truly intelligent then over the next couple of days my social media feeds will be full of reassuring content about how the machines are benign and their intentions are pure. 

In addition to this blog, I write in an old fashioned analog journal most days. Now I'm starting to think a good reason to keep doing that is so some thoughts stay out of reach of the machines.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

An unexpected return to the ACCA

Just when everyone, including me, assumed the Annual Christmas Card Audit was over for another year, my Mum surprised me by giving me a bag full of all her Christmas cards to look through. It included this one that features the Old Market Hall in The Square in Shrewsbury, which I thought was apt to include given that's where Mum lives and where all this sample of cards came from.


I’m not going to do a full audit of Mum's cards, but I am going to use the bundle of cards to increase the size of the data sample in my quest to find the most popular Bible verse to feature on Christmas cards.

There were 71 cards in the bag my Mum gave me. 10 cards had Bible verses, which is about about 14% of the cards. That’s a much higher ratio of cards with Bible verses than in the cards that Cathy and I received this year (which you can read about here).

Unlike the cards with Bible verses on that cathy and I received this year, there were a couple of lines from the Nativity stories in the gospels included in Mum’s cards. But conversely, there were also no verses from the Psalms in Mum’s selection, unlike on the cards that Cathy and I received.

In order of appearance in the Bible, these are the verses. Isaiah was popular, particularly chapter 9, verse 6 which appeared on two cards, with different bits of the verse selected for inclusion.

Isaiah 9.6 “For to us a child is born, a Son is given.”

Isaiah 9.6b “His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

That first bit featured on a card we received this year too!

There was a verse from later on in Isaiah as well.

Isaiah 60.1 “Arise shine, for your light has come, and the Glory of the LORD rises upon you.”

Moving into the New Testament, three of the four gospels were represented by a verse each.

Matthew 2.1 “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked ‘Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was on a card featuring the three wise men.)

Luke 2.14 “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

John 1.14 “The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

I’ve written essays on the prologue of the gospel of John twice in my life – when I was doing Religious Studies at A Level and then when I was doing my New Testament Studies module on my theology degree. I’d go on a limb and say it’s probably the most intriguing part of the New Testament. Previously another verse from this section of John’s gospel has featured on cards but this is the first time verse 14 has been counted.

And then we finish up with some verses from the random tiny books towards the end of the New Testament. None of these verses had featured previously in these audits. 

Titus 2.11 “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.”

1 John 4.9 “By this God’s love was revealed to us, that God has sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”

Jude 1.2 – “I pray that God will greatly bless you with kindness, peace and love!” – this appeared in 2 cards in Mum’s bundle, having never appeared in cards we have received. Both cards were the same design, from the same charity (The Leprosy Mission) so I’m only counting it once for audit purposes.

So, the new revised totals of verses on cards are as follows:

  1. Luke 2.11 (sometimes with a bit of Luke 2.10 attached) – 5
  2. Isaiah 9.6 - 4
  3. Psalm 33.21 - 3
  4. John 1.9 - 2
  5. Psalm 46.10; Psalm 139.11-12; Isaiah 40.5; Isaiah 60.1; Matthew 2.1;  Matthew 2.11; Luke 2.4-5; Luke 2.7; Luke 2.14; John 1.14; John 8.12; 2 Corinthians 9.15; Titus 2.11; 1 John 1.5; 1 John 4.9; Jude 1.2- all with 1

The big winner after counting this sample is Isaiah 9.6, which moves into second place in the table, leapfrogging Psalm 33.21. I was surprised that all the other Bible verses were brand new to the audit sample!

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

More hospital planning decisions like this, please

On my recent work trip to North Wales, I visited the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Rhyl for the first time. I was meeting a colleague (and friend) who works there. She took me on a little tour and pointed out this plaque.


That sounds like a great reason to pick a location for a hospital. Particularly if it means the staff break room has a view like this! 


The hospital even had a basement swimming pool refreshed by the incoming tide when it was built. Sadly it no longer exists, but I was impressed by the ingenuity.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Seagull terrorists and subzero goalfest - the January Birthdays weekend

I was in Shrewsbury over the weekend as my brother and mother celebrate their birthdays on subsequent days, both of which were on the weekend. I had managed to co-ordinate a work trip to Llandudno Junction on the Friday beforehand, which worked well in terms of visiting family. 

I arrived in Llandudno Junction at lunchtime, with half an hour to spare before my meeting, so went to Tesco for a meal deal. I sat in my car and opened my packet of Popchips. There was a thump and I looked up to see I had a visitor!


The cheeky bird even jiggled my windscreen wiper to get my attention. When I finished my lunch, I started the engine and the seagull didn't move. I started to reverse out of the space and the seagull moved his legs to brace, like a surfer. 

At this point I wondered if I had now acquired a seagull shaped bonnet ornament, but thankfully after a couple of seconds he decided he didn't fancy car-surfing any more and flapped off. 

Later Cathy sent me a news article from Wales Online about seagulls terrorising Tesco shoppers in Llandudno Junction. I can't say for certain that it's the very same seagull in the picture accompanying the news story, but it could well be! 

I headed over to Shrewsbury after I had finished my appointments for the day and had a great weekend with my family. This included a rousing 5-1 victory for Shrewsbury Town against Cambridge United despite the bitter cold on the Saturday and meals out on both days to celebrate the birthday boy and girl.

Birthday boy (and son)

Birthday girl (and son)

I even had time to play a bit of back garden football with my eldest nephew, Zac, which sadly ended prematurely when the ball entered the garden hedge and came back out with a thorny stick attached to it. The hiss of escaping air as the thorns were removed was summed up by Zac when he said "Well that ball's a goner!" And that was the end of the game. Being able to go back into the warm was only a minor consolation. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

ACCA 2022 - Bible verse update

During a couple of previous audits I've noted which Bible verses feature on Christmas cards when I do my Annual Christmas Card Audit (ACCA). This is more to satisfy my own curiosity than anything else. This year, four cards featured Bible verses, including the one on this card that was printed on the front and inside!


I only count this verse once in my list, even though it appears twice on the card, because I'm just counting the cards.

For reference, because I realise not everyone knows this, the Bible is split up into a number of "books", each book is split into chapters, and each chapter is split into verses. This is to aid the reader to find a particular paragraph or sentence. Sometimes the names of books are shortened as happens on this card. "2 Cor" is short for 2 Corinthians, which is the second "book" called Corinthians. 2 Cor 9.15 means the quote is from chapter 9 and verse 15. The word NET refers to the translation of the Bible the quote has been taken from. I haven't bothered logging which versions of the Bible are most quoted. That feels too nerdy even for me!

Two of the four Bible verses that featured this year were ones I hadn't logged on cards before. In order of where they appear in the Bible, the verses were:

  • Psalm 33.21 – For our heart shall rejoice in him, because we have trusted in his holy name.
  • Isaiah 9.6 – For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. 
  • Isaiah 40.5 – And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (This was new)
  • 2 Corinthians 9.15 – Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift. (As pictured above - a new verse and the only one to appear on the front of a card!)

Chapter 40 marks the start of the third distinct section of the book of Isaiah, which is is a big book in the Old Testament. The third section is often described as the 'messianic' section (following the 'prophetic' chapters 1-35 and the 'historic' chapters 36-39). Some of the verses get borrowed in the gospels to describe Jesus, although Isaiah 40:5 was an unusual choice for a Christmas card because the verses around it aren't particularly focused on the Messiah.

I also thought it was a bit strange that this year there weren't any Bible verses taken from any of the gospels, where the stories of Jesus's birth appear. However, with five appearances in previous years, Luke 2.11 is still the most popular Bible verse to feature on a Christmas card (in my data sample). 

In order of popularity the verses are:

  1. Luke 2.11 (sometimes with a bit of Luke 2.10 attached) - 5
  2. Psalm 33.21 - 3
  3. Isaiah 9.6; John 1.9 - 2
  4. Psalm 46.10; Psalm 139.11-12; Isaiah 40.5 ; Matthew 2.11; Luke 2.4-5; Luke 2.7; John 8.12; 2 Corinthians 9.15; 1 John 1.5 - all with 1
This is very likely my final post related to the ACCA for this year. I haven't decided yet whether to continue doing it next year but I have had lots of positive comments which has encouraged me to consider carrying on.

Monday, January 16, 2023

10 Christmas cards from the 2022 ACCA

As we received fewer cards this year, as detailed on the Annual Christmas Card Audit (ACCA) post yesterday, I have limited my selection of favourite cards from the audit to just ten. There were lots of great cards, but these were the ones that particularly stood out. 

The first card I want to show off is one that was sent to me by Jon in Melbourne. I met Jon through an online discussion forum and he contacted me a few months back saying how he liked the audits I wrote and he wanted to send us a Christmas card. I liked it so much it's the lead-off card in this post!


Australian animals wearing Santa hats? I might never have met Jon in real life, but boy, did he know what kind of card to send me!

I try to include at least one religious themed card in my yearly selection. I'm counting this one as the religious one this year, even though it's not explicit. Cathy said she really liked the way the dove was drawn, which swayed me towards including it.


Speaking of Cathy, there's a 'couples card'. We had a couple of couples cards, but I only had room for one in the selection.


Robins were a resurgent category this year. This robin design from Oxfam included Christmas greetings in lots of languages, including Cymraeg, which edged it against lots of other cards.


The next card would give me an opportunity to rant about the ballad of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and how Rudolph should have told all those other reindeer to suck it after the way they treated him. But Christmas is a season of goodwill and all that, and besides, if Rudolph has decided to forgive the other reindeer and include them on his team, then who am I to bear a grudge on his behalf?


Some members of "Team Rudolph" had glittery accessories. Glitter doesn't scan very well, so you will have to take my word for it. Overall glitter use was way down this year on the Christmas cards, which is good news.

Occasionally a fairly simple design from an unexpected source gets my attention. This card was sold in Morrisons supermarkets. I think it's a lovely, effective representation of a Christmas tree that really stands out. 


'Christmas elf' was a returning category this year. Technically it was Christmas elves, plural. Our friends Sara and Leanne dressed their twins up for a delightfully cute photo-card. Because, let's be honest, if you're not going to dress them up as props for your Christmas card, what really is the point of having kids?


I am planning to keep that card until the twins are old enough to be terribly embarrassed by it, and then fish it out to show them. Well, someone has to...

We are getting to business end of the post now. Some people get quite competitive trying to send a card that will be my favourite. The remaining three cards are all from family members. They all pin-pointed certain known preferences that I have blogged about before.

So, in sort of third place, my sister Sarah sent us this.


Dogs in Santa hats with a joke on the front and a greeting in Cymraeg? Several boxes ticked there. Just having dogs in Santa hats is likely to get your card a place in the selection. This card takes it to a new level. 

In runners up spot, with yet another podium finish, is Cathy's cousin, Adam. I don't know if he chose this because of my interest in stamp collecting, or just because he was looking for the most off the wall design possible. 


"Replaced with a lump of coal" made me laugh out loud when I opened it. Sounds about right! 

Adam's card was the clear winner for several days, until this final card arrived. 


Yep, it's a narwhal delivering Christmas presents and food. It's just adorable, despite the lack of a Santa hat - but fairylights around his horn is a fine substitute.

The sender was my sister-in-law Abby, who has form for sending good cards - she usually places high in the selection post including a number one spot back in 2018

We are, of course, grateful for all the cards we receive whether they feature on the blog or not - so thank you to everyone who sent us one!

Sunday, January 15, 2023

The eleventh Annual Christmas Card Audit (ACCA)

Here we are again - it's time for the Annual Christmas Card Audit (ACCA), which has become a feature on this blog, even to the point where people have got in touch to send me cards because they have read the blog. (Well, one person has done that - hi Jon from Melbourne!)

The postal strikes and knock on effect on deliveries meant some cards didn't arrive until well after Christmas so we left them up on display a bit longer than normal this year. That prompted my friend Stewart to contact me a few days ago asking where the audit was. I reassured him that it was on the way.

Last year I included the cards designed by kids in the audit post. Here's the one Stewart sent us, designed by his daughter Delilah. 


Delilah's card got counted in the reindeer category.

Anyway, on with the audit. As ever, I've included the previous year's figures for comparison.

Total number of cards: 63 - This is actually a huge drop from last year's total of 91. Whether this is because of the rising cost of living, the spiralling cost of postage, or disruption caused by strike action is hard to day - probably it's a combination of all 3. But anyway, it's quality, not quantity that matters!

Hand-made / home-produced cards: 5 (8 in 2021)

Cards designed by kids: 2 (1 less than last year, when we had 3)

Cards with glitter: 3 (A quarter of last year's total of 12. It would be good news for the environment if glitter disappeared altogether.)

Cards sold in aid of charity (or fundraising): 38 (Down from 53 - which feels a proportionate drop given the overall drop in cards received.)

Total number of charities represented: 37 (40 in 2021) 

Most popular charity represented: Mind, with 10 cards. This is the first time Mind has been the most popular charity, although most of these were on multi-charity cards. There was one card that was just sold in aid of Mind. The second most popular charity was the Alzheimer's Society with 9.

Charity card cause breakdown

Cards raising money for cancer charities: 14 (down from 24)

Cards raising money for other health issues: 16 (down from 36)

Animal charities: 1 - the RSPB, (Was zero in 2021)

Children's charities: 6 (8 in 2021)

Overseas development charities: 8 (down from 11)




THEMES

There's always a bit of a challenge with some themes - the card above, by Zachie, featured spiders and cacti wearing Santa hats. Obviously it is absolutely brilliant and would raise everyone's joy levels as much as it did mine, but for avoidance of doubt, it got counted under 'other animals' rather than 'Christmas foliage'.

Religious themes

I always start with the religious themed cards as technically, Christmas is a religious holiday. However, the number of religious themed cards does seem to be about the same proportion every year - more than a fifth, less than a quarter.

Religious-themed cards: 14 ( down from 19). 

Cards featuring the Nativity: 7 (down from 12)

Some of the following characters from the Christmas story may have featured on the Nativity cards, but they only get counted if they appear solo on the cards. 

Three kings: 0 (This might be the first time ever that the kings / wise men / magi didn't appear on a card. They were on 2 cards last year.)

The shepherds: 0 (Again! That's three no show years in a row.)

Angels: 1 (The same number as 2021.)

'Cartoony' religious: 0 (This fluctuates year on year between a few and zero; 2022 was a zero year.)


Other themes

Santa: 3 (down from 6)

Christmas Elf: 1 (Relisted this year after being dropped as a category.)

Penguins: 2 (Half of last year's total.)

Bears: 2 (After a bear-free Christmas last year, they have returned!)

Reindeer: 3 (down from 6)

Christmas trees: 5 (down from 6)

Christmas food: 1 (down from 3)

Christmas decorations: 2 (down from 4)

Robins: 4 (A rare category that increased! Up from 3 last year)

Sheep: 0 

Dogs with or without Santa hats: - I'm delighted that after a zero showing last year, we had 2 dogs cards and 1 had dogs in Santa hats!

Other animals with or without Santa hats: 8 (Up from 6. It was a bit of a menagerie, with a koala and a narwhal featuring on cards.)

Winter scene/scenery: 3 (down from 8)

Snow & snowflakes: 0

Snowpeople: 2 (After a good showing of 8 last year, this is quite a drop.)

Licensed characters: 3 (Down from 6 in 2021.)

Hares & Moons: 1 (Another stable category with 1 last year as well.)

Christmas foliage (formerly listed as "holly and wreaths"): 3 (Up from 1 in 2021)


CARD FRONT MESSAGES

Word 'Christmas' on the front: 27, of which 4 were religious. This is an increase from 25 overall and 2 religious cards in 2021. 

"Seasons Greetings": 3 (down from 4)

Mentions "Jesus": 0 (For the second year in a row.)

"Peace": 3 (Up from zero last year - perhaps it reflects a year with a fairly big war kicking off on the eastern edge of Europe.)

Bible verse on front: 1 (This is one of the most consistent categories. We always seem to get 1 card with a Bible verse on the front.)

Lines or titles of Christmas carols: 2 (down from 4)

Lines or titles of Christmas songs: 1 (down from 3) - I sort of cheated here because one of the cards had the words "A Child is Born" on, which is the title of a Christmas song. Otherwise it would have been zero.

Message in Welsh: 4 (up from 2)

Puns: 1, which is a huge drop from 8 last year. Is the era of puns over?

In conclusion - we got a lot fewer cards this year so the overall trend for all the categories is downwards. There were a couple of categories that bucked the trend. It was nice to see bears reappear and, of course, the dogs in Santa hats, which just epitomises Christmas to me.

In fact, any animals in Santa hats epitomises Christmas to me. In addition to Zachie's spider (above), our friend Helena drew chickens in Santa hats for her Christmas card - which I include here to finish off the eleventh ACCA in style!