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

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The big 2012 Christmas Card Audit

This is something I've been meaning to do for a few years, but have finally got round to it. Last night Cathy and I went through our Christmas cards and worked out some fun categories. This may give us an insight into Christmas, the kind of people who send us cards, or it could just be diverting nonsense. You decide.

Total number of Christmas cards: 104
Hand-made / home-produced cards: 6
Cards with magnets on: 1

Cards sold in aid of charity: 42
Of which...
Traidcraft cards: 6
Oxfam cards: 2
Cancer charities: 14 (including some cards with multiple charities supported, including cancer charities)
Total number of charities represented: 40
Interesting note: all the Traidcraft / Oxfam cards had a religious theme

Religious-themed cards: 37
Cards featuring characters from the Christmas story: 32
Of which...
Three kings: 9
The Shepherds: 2
The Star of Bethlehem: 1
The Holy Family or Baby Jesus: 20
Other themes
'Peace': 4
Santa: 6
Penguins: 5
Various cartoon bears: 10, plus 2 polar bears
Dogs in Santa Hats: 2

Cards that mention 'Christmas' on the front: 45
Interestingly, a lot of the religious-themed cards don't mention Christmas on the front. Just a picture of the Kings or the Stable. Not sure what that's about.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Pocket-sized football hero

I may have mentioned this before but the current England and Manchester City goalkeeper, Joe Hart started his career at Shrewsbury Town. Not only that but he comes form Shrewsbury and went to the secondary school that I went to many moons ago. So I have a bit of a soft spot for him.

For Christmas, Cathy bought me two of the Topps sets featuring little micro-figures of Joe Hart in his England home and away shirts. I was well chuffed!

I also got some mini-figures of cybermen. Not sure if they play football, as such, but I'm sure they wouldn't be able to get much past the Joes.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Movies of 2012

Instead of doing my round up of films I watched and saying which one was best, I've decided to try and present a few 'awards' in different categories. So, here goes...

Most surprising movie
Disney/Pixar's Brave was a big surprise. I'd been very disappointed by Cars 2 and didn't think the trailers were anything special. I thought it looked like a Scottish-set version of Mulan or something, but the story veered off in an unexpected direction. The animation was top-notch, it had some very funny scenes, and generally I thought it was excellent.

Most underwhelming movie
Prometheus promised much and delivered very little. It somehow managed to combine pretentious ambitions with weak characterisation and a plot that seemed to be mainly made up of holes. Very, very disappointing.

Movie that made me think a bit harder than I expected
I really liked Looper, although I'm pretty sure the central plot device of time travel unravelled right at the end. But it was very well acted - Joseph Gordan-Levitt was excellent, as was Bruce Willis - and the story kept me guessing right to the end. All-in-all, a sci-fi move that was well worth watching.

Enjoyable action movie of the year
I really liked Avengers Assemble. It may not be as cool as the recent Batman films, but it was fast-paced, the actors took the job seriously, but most of all it was the culmination of a series of films that all fed into a much larger picture. As such, it was a believable 'cross-over' film. The characters had back-stories, but this was a move forward for all of them. It maybe was a bit long, but that's about the only criticism I can make.

Movie that made me feel a bit 'meh' afterwards
Two movies vie for this award - The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall. I don't think either enriched my life. The Batman film had an interesting political edge to it - that without the ruling 1%, all you get is anarchy and terror, while the James Bond film was nihilistic in the extreme (as I said when I reviewed it before). Nihilism can work in a movie (for example, I thought Dredd was very well done), but Skyfall was unremitting for a movie ostensibly about a 'hero'.

Comedy of the year
I didn't see that many comedies this year. Ted was funny, but a bit rude, so I'm going to give this one to Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, mainly because it made a joke about a previous installment in the series involving dinosaurs and said that it "didn't make a lot of sense." That amused me.

Film of the year
And so to the big one - my personal favourite film of 2012 and it has to go to... (drumroll) The Muppets. As I said when I reviewed it back in February, I liked the way the film treated the original Muppet ethos with respect. Disney did a very good job at capturing what made the Muppets work a few decades ago, and it was just a great family movie, with several jokes that made me laugh out loud. On another note, the recent acquisition of the Star Wars empire by Disney hasn't really worried me - given how Disney treated the Muppets, I have high hopes they will capture the spirit of Star Wars in the right way. (And as Cathy has pointed out, they really can't mess it up as badly as George Lucas did with the prequels.)

I'm already looking forward to some of the films due out in 2013, but that was 2012.