Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Farewell 2013

Normally I wait and do my review of the year in January, but what the hey. These are my personal 'cultural' highlights for 2013.

Best book read
My friend Jo gave me Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck in our book group secret Santa last year, which I loved. It's an account of his road trip around America with his dog Charley. I learned a lot from it and laughed a lot at it. Thoroughly recommended. I've since read two more Steinbeck classics, including Cannery Row, which I found very engaging. It has a large number of true-to-life characters and felt very real, as it described life in the rough end of Monterey down with the hobos and whore-houses.

Other books of note: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks - the last Culture novel, following Banks's tragic early death from cancer. Not as good as Surface Detail, but I liked it. Trautmann's War by Catrine Clay was an interesting analysis of the rise of Nazism, told through the lens of Bert Trautmann, the Manchester City footballer who grew up in Germany in the 1930s.

Best film
Two great animated films came out this year, Monsters University and Frozen. Monsters U is a prequel to Monsters Inc, which I have loved since it came out a decade ago. I thought it was very clever and there were several curveballs throughout that I wasn't expecting. The ending was very mature as well, with the main characters having to live with the consequences of their actions, rather than a Hollywood 'all is forgiven' restorative ending. Frozen was excellent too, and probably edges it. Again, there is quite a mature ending around the definition of an act of true love. Plus one totally stand out song sung by a snowman brought to life by magic, which made me laugh out loud.

Other films of note: Philomena was a tough watch, but a very powerful story with interesting things to say about institutional religion and genuine forgiveness. Girl Most Likely was a quirky Indie offering with some great performances that had an emotional resonance.

Best music
I was fortunate to see my favourite band, The Tragically Hip, live twice in London in July. But the best gig I went to this year was seeing The Avett Brothers live in Manchester in February. we discovered the Avett Brothers in the most bizarre way - Cathy saw them on the TV show Ace of Cakes, listened to them on Spotify and we have subsequently bought most of their albums. They were excellent in concert, with a livelier, rockier feel than I was expecting.

Other music of note: On our summer holiday in Cornwall we went to the organ concert at Truro Cathedral. There was one piece, called Fiat Lux (Let there be light), which gave me synaesthesia - by which I mean when I closed my eyes I could 'see' lights and movement, as if the stars were appearing.

Best TV
There has been only one show for me this year - Elementary. Johnny Lee Miller is brilliantly dark, comic, and tragic by turns, as Sherlock Holmes recovering from addiction in modern day New York. Lucy Liu is understated but never underplayed as his sidekick. The show can be slightly formulaic at times, but steers away from the worst of American drama clich├ęs. Introducing Rhys Ifans as Mycroft Holmes in the second series has been a good move as well. It is the only show I make a point of trying to watch on the night its aired.

Other TV of note: I haven't watched much else, really. I found Doctor Who disappeared up its own backside too much this year, although the 50th anniversary special was good, but that's mainly because of John Hurt. The final IT Crowd episode was quite funny, but didn't really hit the heights of some of the early episodes.

Best place visited
There have been a few new places this year. I enjoyed going to both Truro and Wells Cathedrals. I also went with my friend Connor to the British Museum in-between Tragically Hip gigs, where we visited the Coins in the Bible exhibit, which I found fascinating. I learned where the term 'Widow's Mite' comes from. On our holiday in Cornwall we stayed in Flushing, near Falmouth and visited several places we had never been to before. The absolute highlight was visiting a lighthouse that was used as the external location for Fraggle Rock!

Best toy / model / collectible
The Boba Fett collection has expanded to over 50 figures now, and the Black Series 6" figure I bought just before Christmas is probably one of the nicest action figures I've ever bought. However, my toy of the year is the Lego VW Camper Van that Cathy and I bought and built on our wedding anniversary. It took us over six hours and the resulting model is a thing of beauty. I blogged about it here.

So, on the cusp of 2014, that's not a bad year, really.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Big fat film review - 7 films. I'll be brief I promise.

Here are some thoughts on 7 films I've seen recently. There are mild spoilers throughout.

The Way, Way Back
I went to see this at Chapter with my friend Nigel. It's an American family drama about a boy called Duncan who goes on holiday with his mum, his mum's domineering new boyfriend, Trent, and Trent's daughter who is a couple of years older then Duncan. Steve Carell plays Trent. It's a straight role, and I wish he played more 'straight' roles because he is excellent in this as a passive aggressive bully who lectures Duncan on how relationships are founded on respect while at the same time belittling him.

Duncan then ends up at a run-down water-park away from the beach when he meets Owen played by Sam Rockwell, who doesn't take life too seriously. At first the wise-cracking Owen seems like one of life's wasters, but then as the film wears on, it becomes apparent that he has more depth to him, and through offering respect to Duncan is a better role model than Trent. The acceptance and trust that Owen places in Duncan transforms Duncan from a shy teenager to a young man.

The film has moments of real quality. There is a strong supporting cast including Toni Collette as Duncan's mum, Alison Janney and Amanda Peet.

Stand-out scene: Owen intervenes when Trent verbally assaults Duncan, simply by standing between them. Trent, a bully by nature, isn't going to get involved in a fight he might not win, so backs off, revealing his true cowardly nature.
Rating: 7/10

The Adjustment Bureau
This is a couple of years old and Cathy and I watched it on TV. Matt Damon plays David, an aspiring politician who meets a professional dancer, Elise, played by Emily Blunt. They fall for each other, but mysterious 'agents' of the 'adjustment bureau' intervene to keep them apart. The bureau exists to make sure that people adhere to the plan for their life.

David and Elise are not meant to be together and the agents track them to make sure they don't meet up. It's a weird concept and there are plenty of interesting points to make about fate, love and choices. If David and Elise stay together they will miss out on their destinies to become President and a world famous dancer, respectively. What choice will they make?

I could see how the metaphysical questions would put many people off. I thought it was fascinating. The film is excellently shot and Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are both brilliant in it. Yes, the story is weird. All was almost explained though when 'Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick' came up at the end.

Stand-out scene: David is told humans were given the freedom to decide their own fate and it all went horribly wrong. So 'The Chairman' (a thinly veiled reference to God?) retook control.
Rating: 8/10

I went to see this with Cathy - she got free tickets, somehow. It's not a film I'd have gone to see otherwise, which would have been a shame. Steve Coogan stars as real-life journalist turned spin doctor Martin Sixsmith, reeling after being sacked from his job advising the government. Trying to get back into work, he takes a 'human interest' story when he is introduced to Philomena Lea, played by Judi Dench.

Philomena was 14 and pregnant in mid-century Ireland. As a result she was sent to live in a convent, where she had the baby and worked in the laundry to earn her keep. When her boy, Anthony, was three, the nuns sold him to a childless couple from America. She asks Martin to track her down.

It's safe to say the nuns do not come out of this film in a good light. Obsessed that Philomena 'enjoyed her sin' they with-held all information from her for years, destroying their records so that she and other women wouldn't be able to trace their children. A trip to America uncovers Anthony's life, but the story's resolution is, amazingly, back in Ireland.

Considering the story is based on Martin Sixsmith's real-life experience of investigating what happen to Anthony Lea, he is remarkably honest about his own flaws. He doesn't come out of the film as the hero. Steve Coogan plays the role dead straight and is very, very good. There's an emotional punch at the end that I found very hard to take.

Stand-out scene: Philomena watches home movies of Anthony's life and we, the audience, discover the lies she has been told before she does.
Rating: 8/10

The Eagle
I watched this on TV. It was dreadful. Channing Tatum stars as a Roman general who wants to find out to his father's legion that went missing North of Hadrian's Wall twenty years or so previously. Setting off with his British slave, Jamie Bell, they travel to Scotland to recover the 'Eagle' - the standard of the missing legion, that is now in the hands of the savage natives.

I reckon whoever acted as a historical advisor on this should hand their money back. It was obtained under false pretenses. Apparently druids rode chariots into battle and Scotland was inhabited by 'painted people' who look more like Mohicans or the weird Mayan remnant in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Stand-out scene: A panning 'map-shot' or Roman Britain included Viriconium - now known as Wroxeter and about 15 miles from where I grew up. Seriously, that's the only bit worth watching for.
Rating: 2/10

Mean Girls
We watched this on DVD after being leant it by our friend, Clare. Lindsay Lohan plays Cady, a girl who is suddenly dropped into high school after years of being home educated on the African Savannah. There's some play there on how high school is a more hostile environment.

I'm sure everyone reading this will have seen Mean Girls. The main plot point is that Cady is adopted by the superficial queen-bitches of the school, known by their detractors as The Plastics. Initially intending to bring the Mean Girls down, Cady slowly morphs into one of them, until she realises what she has become.

With strong support from other great teen actors and Tina Fey as a teacher (she also wrote the screenplay), Mean Girls has a lot to say about the tribalism and sheer ferocity of school life. There are also a number of unexpected moments, most memorably involving a school bus.

Stand-out scene: The incident with the bus near the end.
Rating: 6/10

Thor: the Dark World
The Marvel / Avengers franchise spins on its merry way with this sequel to Thor. Much has been said on the film forums about Chris Hemsworth's (Thor) lack of charisma. Cathy argues that this works though, because in her view, most of the 'big gods' in the old pantheons were a bit dim anyway. Tom Hiddleston excels as Loki, the trickster and Thor's adopted brother, while Natalie Portman, as Thor's human love interest, Jane, had very little to do in the film, really, but did it quite well.

I'd like to see Natalie Portman actually lead a blockbuster. She has been a key figure in a few, but like the Star Wars prequels, her main role seems to be to give the hero something to think about and relate to. She's a better actress than that, but isn't given the space to show it.

The film is basically about the re-emergence of the Dark Elves, who want to destroy all nine worlds of the known multi-verse and re-establish the primordial darkness that existed beforehand. Thor and Loki have to team up to stop him. It fits nicely into the Marvel Avengers story arc and includes plenty of references to the other films, along with plenty of humour. There's also a marvellous cameo from one of the other Avengers.

Stand-out scene: Thor busts Loki out of the Asgardian prison, and one-by-one all his friends tell Loki that if he betrays Thor they will make him pay.
Rating: 7/10

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology
Bit of an odd one this. I went with my friend Ollie to Chapter to see it, at his suggestion. It's basically two hours of philosopher Slavoj Zizek deconstructing the 'ideology' that infuses our world (i.e. capitalism) with the aid of clips from famous movies.

It starts with clips from John Carpenter's 'They Live' to illustrate how ideology isn't a pair of glasses we put on. We actually have to put the glasses on to see the ideology that we don't otherwise notice. It then jumps incongruously to clips from the Sound of Music and and interesting critique of Catholicism as an institution, not as a faith.

I would probably have found this easier to watch in 15-20 minutes sections as I found my brain couldn't keep up with all the ideas knocking around in it. It is very cleverly shot, with Zizek 'inhabiting' various movie scenes to explain the ideology they contain. He confirms my disgust at The Dark Knight's nihilism, pulls apart the upper class parasitism on the working class as evidenced in Titanic, and uses long clips from Nazi and Soviet propaganda films to make further points.

Well worth a watch, but not an easy one. It left me with an awful lot of questions. I didn't really get the bit with the Kinder egg.

Stand-out scene: Using Willem Defoe's performance as Jesus in Martin Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, Zizek argues that the only path to true atheism is through Christianity, because in dying on the cross, Jesus set humanity free from dependence on God, and therefore humans are free to determine the meaning of their lives and actions. Big stuff.
Rating: 7/10

Friday, September 27, 2013

What we did for our 15th Wedding Anniversary

I know no one will really believe me when I say this, but this was Cathy's idea.

We had talked about maybe going away for a couple of nights, or a day trip to Hay-on-Wye, but then the weather was awful, so we went for plan B - Cathy's suggestion.

We went into the Lego Shop in Cardiff and for less than a night away at a fancy hotel, bought ourselves the 1,334-piece expert modeler VolksWagen Camper Van. Then we spent about six hours together building it! We punctuated our quality couple time with a meal out, which was just as well because after the first few hours we definitely needed a break. The build got quicker as time went on as we had fewer pieces to rummage through to find the ones we needed.

It was a great way to celebrate being married and actually spend time together doing something we enjoy. We discovered afresh the importance of clear communication in a marriage ('Ooh, you need to find a really peculiar looking piece, now.'). And we had the wonderful feeling of 'Look what we did!' at the end.  

So, here's a photo stream of our anniversary project.

All the bits!

All the bits sort of sorted!

The engine - this is visible when you lift the rear engine housing door on the finished model

The chequerboard floor

Bodywork starts to take shape

That seat in the back folds down into a bed :-)

More bodywork built

Cab door added

Windows. The curtains were a bit fiddly

Close up of the dash

Roof on

Demonstrating the pop-up roof sleeping area

The iconic front end

Six hours and the bus is complete!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fairy Hearts for sale - gendered marketing meets meat

I spotted this shopping in Asda Cardiff Bay, and am quite proud that is has since been added to the Sociological Images pointlessly gendered products pinterest board, after I tweeted the pics.

But more to the point, isn't there something deeply disturbing in encouraging little girls to eat fairy hearts? What images does that conjure up? Fairies being farmed intensively in large barns full of glittering cages, fattened up and cruelly murdered so that little human 'princesses' can gorge themselves?

It reminds me of the horrible scene in Stardust where the witches are going to murder Yvaine so they can eat her heart and have their youth restored. Is that what Asda think they are doing by selling these?

In a way, of course, that is what they will achieve. The 'princessing' of little girls is one of the most powerful programmes for infantilising and disempowering women in our culture. Making little girls eat fairy hearts is part of a much wider scheme to dress them all in pink, and limit their dreams to wishing they were pretty enough to win the heart of a prince, instead, of, you know, getting out there and kicking ass.

Even before I was a vegetarian I would never have touched processed meat garbage products like this. But sadly many parents will, and in reinforcing the cultural conditioning of princessiness, this disgusting looking meat isn't the only crap they are forcing down their daughters' throats.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Film review - Girl Most Likely

We got free tickets to a screening of this film that I probably wouldn't have bothered to go to otherwise. I do tend to judge films by their posters and trailers and in this case neither have appealed to me.

Which is a shame, because I found this funny and highly enjoyable, even if it is only scoring less than 6 on IMDb. It's feel-good movie with some stand-out performances from Kristen Wiig in the lead, Annette Bening, and particularly Matt Dillon, playing a guy who might be a total flake, or might not. My favourite character was Ralph, played by Christopher Fitzgerald. Glee fans will also enjoy Darren Criss's performance.

The plot is fairly simple. Wiig plays Imogene, a playwright who never lived up to her potential, whose life comes unstuck. She winds up in a psych ward and gets put in the care of her mother who she has been estranged from for years. To make matters worse, this means she has to leave her 'successful', cool Manhattanite life to slum it back in her hometown on the New Jersey shore. But that forces her to confront her own failings and discover her family aren't all they seem after all.

So far, quite predictable. But there's more to it than you'd believe from my rubbish precis in the previous paragraph. It's a coming of age tale for a girl in her 30s taking stock of her life, and maybe that's what chimed with me, being a guy in my 30s reflecting at present on what I want to be doing with my life.

The jokes are reasonably sophisticated and aren't belaboured. In fact it's the throwaway prop gags and references that made me realise this was a better film than many. Stuck back in New Jersey with just the clothes she left behind when she left in the 90s, Imogene ends up wearing a Friends t-shirt. I thought that was funny and, in a way, authentic. That's just one example.

There are also some touching moments. Ralph makes a sheet-fort as a makeshift bedroom for Imogene, as her room is unavailable to her. There's also a moment later on that made the audience go 'Aw!', again involving Ralph. But it doesn't lapse into ridiculous schmaltz, although the ending felt a bit sudden and too perfect. Still, that's a minor gripe.

It's a feel-good movie and it made me feel good. So, job done.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Letter to my MP about Syria

Well, an email actually. Sent tonight. Reproduced here because it sums up how I feel at the moment.

Dear Mr Doughty

I’m writing to express my concern that the UK Government is contemplating a campaign of violence against the people of the nation of Syria, and even doing so without a UN mandate.

As my MP and representative in Parliament I would like you to strongly oppose any move by the UK Government to take unilateral military action or action in partnership with other countries, but without a UN mandate. Military action without a UN mandate is the action of a rogue state, not a civilised nation.

I also ask you to request that the UK Government ensures all diplomatic and other avenues are exhausted before embarking on military action. We simply cannot keep up this path of armed response. The history of UK military interventions in the 21st century contains many lessons for us. It’s easy to get into conflicts. It’s hard to get out of them.

The scenes of chemical weapons use in Syria are horrendous. The UK Government has my full support in trying to discover the perpetrators and bring them to justice. I recognise that may mean military action as a very last resort. However, any response has to target the right people with precision. Otherwise, what is the difference between indiscriminate military action from the UK or USA and indiscriminate military action by Syrian forces on either side of the civil war?

I used the term ‘last resort’ because from the comments heard in the news today, it appears some MPs are suggesting violent action as a ‘first resort’.

There are other things that concern me. What is the likelihood of a response from Russia if military action is taken by the UK / USA? Also, there have been threats made against the Christian minority in Syria that militias will target them if ‘Christian’ countries attack Syria. How do we know that Western military action will not unleash a pogrom against these oppressed religious minorities? A wave of violence against non-Muslims has recently engulfed Egypt, and the sizeable Christian minority in Iraq has been systematically targeted and all but exterminated by vigilantes since the UK & American invasion in 2002.

I know this is a very difficult time for all our Members of Parliament and I hope you find a way forward that best serves both our nation and the oppressed people of Syria.

With best wishes,

Jon Matthias

Friday, May 31, 2013

The science behind successful communications

My colleague Chris (who is a senior comms bod) challenged my previous assertion that communications is essentially a science.

He tweeted: “Good stuff. But science can be challenged especially when it relates to comms.” And then after we discussed it “But tested knowledge often doesn't apply if the personalities, time, timings and environment differ a bit.”

He has a point, of course. Depending who you have in the experiment, and where you do it, changes the experiment. And I would go further and say it’s not that the science can be challenged but it should be challenged. We always need to test it – does this rule or law still hold true? How can we refine it? Do we need to redefine it?

But I still think my basic point holds. If the comms activity has been researched then there will be one way of doing it that’s better than the other. We may want to continue testing it, but we can’t just ignore it. Unfortunately, in my experience, people have chosen to ignore the science, either because they prefer to go with their gut instinct, or they think their idea is brilliant, or whatever.

To take a field that I write about quite frequently: healthcare. There is a real battle in ensuring that the best practice in any given clinical discipline spreads everywhere. It takes 20 years or so for better, safer procedures to become standard. That’s a very slow adoption rate.

Why is the adoption rate so slow when the benefits have been researched and proven? I don’t have the science on that. It would be a fascinating project. The suggestions people have made to me is that people don’t see the need to change, or they don’t believe that the change will be an improvement, or they don’t think the science applies to them.

That final point crops up a lot. A very senior healthcare leader once told me that every doctor thinks they have a uniquely difficult case-mix and that what works for other people won’t work for them because their patients are different. As an argument for maintaining the (unsafe) status quo, it’s very hard to disprove.

I remember an argument with a different manager about including a P.S. on mailing letters. All the research shows this is one of the most likely things to be read in a letter, and so you should repeat your big offer there with an exhortation to take up the offer ASAP. You shouldn’t introduce new information in the P.S.

My manager said he didn’t see the point of repeating information and we should ditch the P.S. His comment was ‘It makes us look like we’ve forgotten something.’ He didn’t realise that was probably why people are more likely to read a P.S. than other parts of the letter.

I lost the argument (seniority again). We dropped the P.S. The mailing flopped. We reverted to the older version of the letter for the next mailing, with the P.S., and it performed better.

I’d take the credit for that, but it wasn’t my research. I didn’t do anything other than read what other, brainier, people said worked for them, and then applied it. But that moment is when I became a believer in the science of comms.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Counter-intuitive Communications Knowledge

I've heard a couple of counter-intuitive pieces of knowledge that interested me from a professional point of view this week.

The first was from my friend Kate, in a guest-post for a comms blog, talking about communicating with young people. Her counter-intuitive finding is that regular through the letterbox snail mail is quite attractive to teenagers. There's a tendency to assume that the only way to reach young people is through social media, but if everyone is piling on there trying to get noticed, maybe a good old-fashioned, co-ordinated, well-written marketing mailing might be the thing instead.

The second thing was an article from CopyBlogger I saw posted on LinkedIn that cites research showing that the more emails you send the fewer people unsubscribe from your list.

I remember having an argument with an incoming senior manager at a place I used to work who said  people were complaining about 'getting too many emails'. As a result he wanted us to cut down the frequency of our regular newsletter. I said I thought that was a bad idea as even if you mailed every week, the most you would spend 'in front' of the reader was 2-3 minutes per email. Even at five minutes for a lengthy email newsletter, mailing once a month gives you an hour's exposure per year. That's not much at all if you want to use it as a relationship-building tool.

Anyway, seniority trumped common sense, as it often does and the newsletter got scaled back. The organisation that relied on relationships with the people who supported it suffered badly in the recession, and eventually the senior manager left in an undignified manner. Depending who you talk to he quit or was given the boot.

The thing with comms is you can't argue with the science, even the counter-intuitive stuff. I meet lots of people who don't get comms, and that's the main point they don't get. Good communications don't just happen.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Welcoming plastic Joe

I've talked about the decline of the high street on this blog before. Here’s another example of how despite my best efforts I ended up resorting to Amazon.

This story begins with a young boy called Joe who began playing in goal for the Shrewsbury Town youth team. A few years later, after breaking through to the first team, a big money transfer, and becoming England’s number 1, Joe Hart has now been replicated in plastic as a tiny Soccerstarz model.

The 1 inch England’s number 1 was released at the beginning of May and I wanted it for my embryonic collection that Cathy refers to as my ‘Shrine to Joe’. I had a hunt in the toy shops in town, and the out of town Toys R Us, plus one or two other places I thought might have it. WH Smiths stock the first wave of SoccerStarz, but didn't have the new releases, and neither did any of the toy shops.

So, at Cathy’s suggestion I resorted to Amazon. It was a few pence more expensive online, but there was no postage to pay, and it arrived today

(I know people bemoan the desperate state of retail at the moment, but is it too much to ask that shops stock the latest things as they come out? That’s the trade off. I resent not being able to buy things simply because shops make the decision not to stock them, or are too disorganised to get them in. As customers we are made to feel to blame for the decline of real-world shopping, but this is a two-way street (no pun intended). I went shopping but couldn't find the things I wanted. Who is at fault here?)

Anyway, SoccerStarz Joe has arrived and fits in neatly with the two Topps figures I've blogged about before, although new Joe looks less stern than his colleagues.

(Sorry for the slightly fuzzy photos. My phone camera isn't great.)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Irritant TV

Judging by my Twitter stream while its on, and the conversations in the office the day afterwards, most people watching The Apprentice can't stand the wannabe apprentices. I heard the radio ads for the show and knew there was no chance in Hades of me wanting to spend any time at all in the company of those people.

So why do so many TV shows seem to be going out of their way to find the worst possible people to compete. (For my money, that's when Big Brother stopped being watchable; when instead of real people it turned into a 'find the freaks and stick them on TV' show.) We've got past the idea of telly as entertainment. The TV programmes that make the ratings seem to have embraced the idea of telly as an irritant.

I guess it's because it's hard to make TV that people love. You need skill and imagination and be willing to put in a lot of graft. It's a lot easier to find some obnoxious twazmuppets and stick them in front of a camera. People will still watch. You'll still get the ratings. You'll still have a hit. You just won't have to work so hard for it.

Why has there been such a groundshift in 'reality TV'?  I suppose 'Real' reality TV was too boring. Normal people are too nice - even the 'characters', whether its that bloke from Airport or a particular wheel-clamper, or whoever. Most of the first generation of reality TV stars were relatively grounded (no pun intended regarding Airport) and seemed to have some self-awareness. Get people with no self-awareness - now that's the difference!

In one way I can understand this thinking being quite important for the Apprentice. If they got together a group of genuine bright young things and gave them various business tasks that they accomplished in a cohesive and collaborative way, that would make fairly dull telly.

But where shows like Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore, and The Valleys, differ is that the people selected are pretty clueless about why they have been selected. They think it's because they're ace. Everyone watching knows it's because they are generally pretty awful specimens of humanity. Their chronic under-appreciation of how they are regarded isn't helped by the way the tabloids and 'celeb' mags play them up as if they are real celebrities who have actually achieved something. (Which leads to worrying copycat behaviour of young teenagers who think being on TV = successful.)

The Apprentice is a great example of using the human capacity for self-delusion regarding one's own skill levels to produce very successful irritant TV. People tune in every week because the battling apprentices are so odious and so full of themselves you want them to come a cropper. They are idiots and you want them to get their comeuppance.

The other reality car-crash trash TV plays on similar themes. We 'love' certain people, we 'hate' others. It's real-life drama and we all want our lives to be more dramatic. And, for many of us it's a chance to sneer at the underclass or the clueless snooty rich. We like to think we are better than those people on TV. That's not a particularly nice trait and I wonder if we would be better people if our personas were being skilfully crafted by anonymous people in the editing suite. (I know how you can make people say pretty much anything you want them to. You do not see the real people on reality shows.)

Irritant TV works because we are drawn to spectacle and we like to see nasty, vain people getting what they deserve. A sharp 'You're fired'. It's all about ratings and the TV companies don't care if people are tuning in because they love the show or because they hate it. And they know that we have reached such a point of dependency on television that we don't switch off even if we hate what we're watching. We just bitch about it on Twitter - which probably drives up the ratings even more.

If it's true that societies end up getting the culture they deserve, then truly we are doomed.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

If there are a lot of me, then I'm a lucky one

Last year I returned to a medicated state and started taking anti-depressants to combat increased levels of anxiety. As has happened when I was previously on a-ds, the thing I noticed is that going on the drugs and trying to wean off them are both accompanied by bizarre night-time brain activity.

To say, at my age, that I have bad dreams seems a bit childish. But the transition from a very real-feeling unreality to a thankfully mundane reality can be difficult some mornings. Like this morning I dreamt that a comet or meteor had collided with Earth and that I was one of the people who had survived. Remnants of the comet were still raining down, so if you went outside you had to hold your hands above your head to protect yourself - it would work for the smaller rocks. If a big one hit you, that was it.

I had to travel from ruined house to ruined house checking on people, and inbetween each one shielding my head from falling comet debris. When I woke up I felt stressed, harassed, and kind of numb as if I'd just been pulled out of a dangerous situation and was now back home and at a loss of what to do. A Hurt Locker moment.

Although they are weird scenarios, dreams like this often have their own internal logic and very specific details, which makes them feel more real than the dreams I have without the pharmacueticals in my system.

I'm interested in the idea of a multiverse. It's intriguing to think there may be other versions of myself out there, living in all kinds of alternative scenarios. I wonder sometimes, if we are all connected. Do I dream their lives? Do they dream mine? Is there a psychic scream that crosses those universe boundaries at times of great stress - is that why I dream do much of being in danger, feelign afraid, facing death?

If my dreams are insights into other realities, then I'm glad I wake up in this one.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Together we can beat cnacer

Look, I don't mean to be a smart-alec, but if you're going to chug me at my desk, at least spell the name of the disease you're trying to beat correctly

Thursday, February 21, 2013


It takes a certain type of person to create a bright shiny pink panther and expect people to buy it for their house. It's a statement piece, no doubt.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Merthyr Town v Poole Town

A friend hailing originally from the South Coast invited me to travel up to Merthyr to see his non-league team play the Martyrs in the Evo-Stik Southern Premier League. How could I turn down that opportunity? I'm a sucker for non-league football - the authentic game, as far as I'm concerned.

The game itself was lively. Poole were the better side, but Merthyr scored first, on the break, against the run of play. Then just before half-time a Merthyr defender stopped a goal-bound shot with his hand. Red card. Penalty. 1-1.

Second half a Merthyr player lunged in two-footed leaving a Poole midfielder screaming in agony with a broken leg. One of the more horrible things I've seen at a game. Another red card. Down to 9 men, Merthyr soon conceded another - a very good move finished off with a tap in. And then Poole just wasted chance after chance before Merthyr won a late penalty and then saw out the game with some heroic defending to take an unlikely point.

Anyway, here's some photos to give you an idea of what it was like.

The correlation of football and religion...

The flag is out ready for the match

Forget live on Sky - now that's a TV gantry!

A mural commemorates Saint Tydfil, martyred in Merthyr

First half goalmouth action

The Merthyr keeper organises his defence as Poole take a corner

Scramble in the goalmouth

The Poole Army cheer on their side, second half

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Crimes against football

Bit of an old photo this - Shrewsbury v Notts County on Boxing Day, 2012. Notts County are the oldest club in the football league, which is the kind of random trivia fact I retain. They also played in LURID PINK!


Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Things I learned from running my own business

In 1998 I helped found Salt and Light Greetings with my wife, Cathy. It had a very simple premise. She would design cards and I would sell them to shops. Over the next four years we supplied shops from Jersey to Aberdeen, Liverpool to Lowestoft. We also partnered with other businesses to produce calendars, height charts, and cross-stitch kits.
Looking back, there are many things I’d do differently. Of course, the landscape has changed. These days we would set up a Blog / Twitter / Facebook presence and try to recruit fans to the project. We had many comments from people who loved Cathy’s designs. We could do more direct selling to the public, but there are several other things I’d try and do as well.

It took us a while to do a mailshot. When we started out I would drive to shops to make sales calls. This was time-consuming and a day of several unsuccessful appointments was soul-destroying.
I researched mailshots, reading Power Direct Marketing by Ray Jutkins and other books, and based our letters on industry good practice. We had a response rate of 20 per cent for one mailshot, and our response rate never dipped below five per cent.
20 per cent is a miraculous rate of return. The reasons? A highly-targetted list. Clear special offers. Very easy-to-use order forms – including one where all you had to do was fill in your name and address and tick one box to get all the cards at a special rate, post-free. Plus our letter that outlined that we were a small business, but we were friendly and we wanted to work with people.
The lesson: If I was starting a business now I would build a highly targeted list and mail to it sooner rather than later.

Other lessons
After a while I wasn’t afraid to chase late-payers, including faxing or phoning every day until we got our money. When I started out I would often let the 30-day period lapse and wait another month or more before contacting people. I changed when I realised that not paying on time was akin to people stealing from us. So I chased the payments.
I can’t remember which book by Mark H McCormack said you should never be afraid to fire your customers. I took that to heart and we blacklisted persistent late payers and refused to supply them. Continuing to do business with unreliable or unethical people can only harm your business. It can be hard to say ‘No’ to people when you run your own business, but you have to sometimes.
If I did it over again I would seek out more partnerships and licensing opportunities. We had great success partnering with other businesses who wanted to use Cathy’s designs on products we couldn’t afford to invest in. Knowing what I know now I would try to partner with more people. The benefit is that they do the hard work of selling and you get paid for it.
I would also look for premises to operate the business in. They cost money, but the psychological advantage of having to get up and go to an office would be good for personal discipline and motivation. It would also mean I could leave the work behind and get a proper break from it. We spent a couple of years with boxes of cards stacked behind the living room sofa, acting as a reminder of how many we still had to sell. That’s the kind of low-level pressure that builds up until eventually I completely lost my enthusiasm for the project.
Finally, I would network more. I think there is more of an emphasis on networking these days, or maybe I just know more business owners who go to business breakfasts and the like. The pressure was on to make sales and so sometimes I discounted the importance of maintaining a network of contacts who I couldn’t sell to. What I’ve learned is that people buy based on recommendations and word of mouth is the cheapest way of selling there is, so I would put time in to build a network.

A final thought
We set up our own business without really knowing what we were getting into. I don’t think we’re so different from most people who set up their own businesses in that respect. The main thing is you have to want it to work. You can’t go in half-hearted. You have to commit. I think the biggest reason so many small businesses fail is because people don’t realise how hard it can be.
The main point of my sharing these lessons I’ve learned is to help people find it less hard when they decide to set up their own business. I hope these lessons are helpful.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Answering the question 'How do you know the one you're with is the one you're meant to be with?'

This year Cathy and I will celebrate our 15 wedding anniversary. That's 'crystal' in case you were wondering. Apparently, we aren't celebrating it by getting a chandelier in our front room. (I've asked.)

I've been asked a few times when I knew that Cathy was 'the one'. I'm not sure I really believe in the idea that there is 'the one' for everybody. But there were a few times when we were first walking out together which gave me clues that we should stick together.

One of the main ones was when I first visited her house away from Uni and discovered she had kept all her Space Lego and Fabuland, with the Fabuland mostly in its original boxes. She even let me play with it (under careful supervision of course!)

I'm not saying I married Cathy for her Fabuland sets, but it was a confirmation that this wonderful person took toys seriously! She could appreciate that I still had most of the accessories from my Action Force and Star Wars figures. She didn't mind that I wanted to collect the entire AF range as an adult, buying the figures I never had as a kid. In fact, many, many trips to boot sales, antique centres and the like prove that she took an active interest.

I had a reminder of the Fabuland moment recently. We've been clearing out the loft in anticipation of fitting insulation and in one of the boxes of Cathy's stuff found a mint copy of the Lego Catalogue from 1986.

I was excited by this as it had two full pages dedicated to the Lego Technic Arctic range. I had the two biggest sets in this range and still have the 6-Wheeled Snow Ranger in near-complete built form.

The mini-bulldozer got broken up for it's pieces, as did the Mountain Rescue Base, although I still have the building instructions and could probably put them back together. Seeing these pictures brings back some good memories of spending most of Christmas Day building the Mountain Rescue Base and using the pneumatics to raise and lower the helicopter lift. It was the first set I had with a pneumatic system in.

Very few people ask me for relationship advice, but I guess the one thing I've learned is to care about the things your other half cares about. That's a measure of how much you love and respect them. That's when you know they may be the one for you.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dinosaur versus Jesus Fish! Fight!

Despite being a regular church-goer, occasional preacher, and self-declared freelance theologian, I've never had the urge to badge up my car with a Jesus fish.

Partly this is because I don't want to be a bad witness and occasionally I get in the wrong lane and have to cut up a random stranger and in those moments I'd rather not have them thinking "not only is he a hoon, he's a Christian hoon!" I base this on my own tendency to think people with Jesus fish should drive better than they often do - and I don't want to be judged by my own high standards.

However, I don't have any issues if people want to adorn their cars with Jesus fish. And I quite like some of the other fish that have appeared in response. Cathy spotted a car near our house recently with two such responses stuck on the back.

Now this one, I've seen before and I think is quite funny - it's the good old Darwin fish, complete with legs.

This one on the other hand was new.

Yes, that's right. It's a dinosaur eating a Jesus fish.

I guess the point is that the existence of dinosaurs is awkward if you're the kind of person who believes in a six day creation about 6,000 years ago. Dinosaurs really do eat that theory alive. And it's a small step from that to dismissing any religious story as nonsense disproved by science.

But who's to blame for that erroneous step? The only reason people make that step is because there are some Christians who claim that unless you believe the six day creation version of events you can't believe the rest of it either. So when someone can't believe that, they assume the rest of it is nonsense.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Disappearing from a high street near you

The news that HMV and Blockbuster have gone into administration this week, following a path trodden recently by Jessops and Comet, has prompted plenty of nostalgic responses. The commentary seems to be - 'We used to go to these places all the time, and now they're going!'

But that's surely the point - we used to use these places, but many of us (myself included) have been seduced by how much cheaper things are on the web. Ironically, in some cases the service was better too. Going into a shop and talking to a human could be a miserable experience depending on the human you talked to. You don't get that problem online. You can also see instantly if something is out of stock, rather than trolling all the way into town, searching through the CD racks in HMV, say and then finally being told by a dead-eyed gawky member of staff that 'if we had it, it would be in the rack'. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

I sound a bit bitter there, but truthfully, shopping in HMV wasn't a pleasant experience. I'm not sure what they were trying to sell in the end. It seemed like everything. The result was that often when I went in looking for a particular CD or band, they didn't have it. People bemoan Asda and Tesco only stocking chart-toppers and popular stuff. But HMV went that way first.

The problem was that HMV wasn't a record shop, but people still thought it was. People looking to buy music went in and were disappointed that instead of racks of CDs they seemed to be trying to sell high-end headphones or One Direction badges. People looking to buy headphones wouldn't automatically think 'HMV - that's the place to look.'

The head honchos at HMV have defended their retail policy saying they had to branch out into new markets, but if the internet has taught us anything it's that niche expertise is in short supply. Anyone can become a unit shifter of DVDs or CDs online - and they will always be cheaper. What you can't buy online is the expertise of someone who can say 'If you like this band, then you might want to have a listen to this as well.' Amazon try that with their recommendations, but the robots are a way off from knowing what to recommend.

I often have a discussion with people about how expensive coffee shop coffees are. My point is that you aren't buying a latte and a biscuit for £3.00 or whatever. You're buying somewhere warm and comfy to park your arse for an hour or so. Shops that get it right don't just sell products, they sell something else - like knowledge, expertise, informed insights and so on.

I think, ultimately, real-world retailers are going to have to get smarter about how they sell stuff and know what they are really selling. I've been talked down to in Jessops because I didn't want to spend more than £100 on a camera. Sorry, I wasted your time, Mr Jessops shop assistant who, incidentally, probably doesn't have a job now. I've been treated rudely in Blockbuster and made to feel scared about failing to return a DVD in time. But when DVDs are dirt cheap in the supermarkets, I don't have to feel stressed about returning a DVD any more. I've had bad experiences in Comet and HMV as well.

The bottom line is this - if people liked shopping in those stores, they wouldn't be disappearing from the High Street. The emotional attachment people had formed - as seen in the nostalgic memories people are tweeting - wasn't a strong one. In the old days we went to those places because we had to, not because we wanted to.

The old days are gone. And so are the shops.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Word of the week: obesogenic

I've been helping promote Champions for Health in work, recognising that my being unhealthy and working in the healthcare sector is incongruous.

Today we had an update day for people involved in the campaign (I went along to interview them). I heard a brilliant word - apparently we live in an "obesogenic culture", i.e. an environment that makes us put on weight by letting us eat more calories than we need.

Now there are two responses to that. You can either accept it and say 'Well, I'm overweight, but what do you expect? I live in an obesogenic culture." Or you can say "I'm not going to let living in an obesogenic culture define me."

Being involved in Champions for Health has been fun. Last year I even ended up on the ITV news.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I'm a late adopter when it comes to books and this one has been around a while. This was Cathy's 'Secret Santa' book at book group. She read it in one sitting and then suggested I read it. I found out later that was because she wanted to discuss the ending with me.

The story is about a nine year-old boy called Bruno who moves from Berlin in 1943 when his father is promoted to Commandant at a concentration camp. He hates it there as he is lonely and there is nothing to do. But then he befriends a boy called Shmuel who is living on the other side of the fence, inside the camp.

The tension builds towards the end and I had a vague sense that something bad was going to happen - as presumably Bruno will realise what is going on and what is going to happen to Shmuel. However, the ending wasn't quite what I expected and it stayed with me vividly for a couple of days.

What is clever about the book is that for almost all of it you know more than the main protagonist. There are several moments where Bruno just doesn't get what is going on - for example when he tries to explain to Shmuel that he should have caught a less crowded train to the camp, because the one Bruno travelled on had plenty of room.

Another interesting element is that, with the exception of one young soldier, the Commandant and his family are portrayed as ordinary people doing what they think is right and good and proper. Bruno's mother drinks a bit too much; his father is authoritarian; his sister, Gretel, just accepts the existence of the camp as how things are - but none of them are bad people, even as they participate to a greater or lesser extent in the Holocaust.

It's to John Boyne's credit that as an author he didn't wimp out at the end. Having made you care about the characters, the power of the story would have been considerably less if he had given it a happy ending.

I gave this book five stars, so it will join the list. It's not one I will read again in a hurry, mainly because it's so memorable. In many ways, reading it reminded me of when I saw Schindler's List - the shock and horror of what happened in the Holocaust confronted me anew. Again, John Boyne, did well to take something so well-known and yet make me as a reader feel horrified all over again.

Friday, January 11, 2013

In defence of Scrappy Doo

At our book group the other night we were discussing children’s TV (as you do at book group!). Someone mentioned Scooby Doo and this was quickly followed by a general dissing of Scrappy Doo, Scooby’s irritating nephew who was added to the cartoon series struggled with drooping ratings in the 80s.

Scrappy Doo is so derided even his own franchise recast him as a villain when they created the live action Scooby Doo movie. He was also lampooned in The Simpsons when they introduced Poochie as a new character to freshen up Itchy and Scratchy, provoking the ire of fans.

However, my friend Bryan bucked this trend, pointing out rather passionately that Scrappy wasn’t all bad. As he said, Scooby and the Gang all started out to solve mysteries, but as soon as spooks or ghouls turned up they screamed and ran away. Scrappy was the only member of the gang who wanted to stick around to take on the ‘monster’.

I’m not saying this insight has completely rehabilitated Scrappy Doo in my mind, but it has made me think more charitably of him. After all, the frequency in which noted cowards Shaggy and Scooby seems to willingly put themselves in danger only to quiver abjectly like jellies when any apparent danger materialises is slightly stupid. If they’re that frightened by old blokes dressed in sheets, why do they keep investigating creepy old fairgrounds, abandoned warehouses, and gothic castles on dark and stormy nights?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Model railway update - January 2013

Although I haven't made any progress on the model railway lay-out as such, I did have a fairly good 2012 in terms of acquiring rolling stock, so I thought I'd share some pictures on here for the friends who like to see pictures of model trains.

First off, some new wagons. L-R, A Dapol gunpowder van, a Bachmann shock absorbing van, a Hornby 20 ton tanker wagon in War Department livery and a Bachmann BR Standard brake van. I bought the SAV, tanker and brake van on a trip to Swansea with my buddy Matt, who also took me round the Gower looking for a model shop that we then had to return to because it was closed for lunch initially. True friendship!

I do like my tanker wagons. I bought this Bachmann set of three 12-tonners in various Shell liveries at a trains fair in Cardiff, where I also bought the GPV in the first picture. The set was priced at £15, but the guy sold them to me for a tenner. Bargeinion!

Every good train needs a brake van and last year I acquired two. The one on the left is the standard 20 ton BR brake van bought on the Gower. The one on the right is a Bachmann SR 'Pillbox' type brake van, which was only released last year and was a Christmas present from my good friend Connor.

You can see the difference between the two brake vans in this picture.

Lastly, but not least, another Christmas present, courtesy of my parents. I've wanted an 'Austerity' 0-6-0 for ages, and I love the black BR livery of the J94 class. I found this one on sale in a model shop in Hereford a few months before Christmas.

I haven't decided on a name for the J94 yet, but continuing on the dog theme I was wondering about Gromit. Any other ideas? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

My five star books

Since 2002 I have been noting the books I read and giving them a review of between one and five stars. A bit sad, I know, but it’s helpful when I can’t remember whether a book was any good or not.

Anyway, here’s a list of the books I’ve given five stars to. I was a bit surprised at some of the ones on this list. Obviously I really liked them at the time. I’m not sure I’d rate them all so highly if I read them now. That shows how subjective this is. I’m also interested by what is not on there – no J.D. Salinger, for example.

God’s Debris – Scott Adams
Stupid White Men – Michael Moore
The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
The River of Time – David Brin
The Incarnation – St Athanasius
Sabriel – Garth Nix
Becoming Fully Human – Patrick Whitworth
Lirael – Garth Nix
How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth – Gordon Fee
Paul, the Spirit and the People of God – Gordon Fee
Abhorsen – Garth Nix
A New Kind of Christian – Brian D. McLaren
A Theology of the Dark Side – Nigel G. Wright
Possession – A.S. Byatt
Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell
Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks
Nineteen Eighty-four – George Orwell
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde
The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Surface Detail – Iain M. Banks
Wonder – R.J. Palacio
The Plot Against America – Philip Roth
Ragnarok – A.S. Byatt
Generation X – Douglas Coupland
Wise Children – Angela Carter

I’ve noticed that as time has progressed I’ve stopped rating Christian books so highly. I’ve also started reading more well-known authors, which is probably the influence of my book group. But I’ve awarded fewer five star ratings as time has gone on, so I’ve given F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salinger, Solzhenitsyn and others four or four and a half star ratings, where a few years earlier they would probably have got a five. (This also explains why Stupid White Men is in this list. I don’t think I’d give that a five now.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2013