Monday, January 19, 2015

When you are your own citation

Three years ago I wrote about the difficulty I had finding a source for a quote by Aneurin Bevan. On and off I've kept trying to find the source, especially when it pops up on Twitter like it did tonight.

So, I asked for the source of the quote and had a surreal sensation when someone replied citing my blog post from 2011. That's the blog post which basically says there is no known source and the person who used the quote at the event where I heard it the first time doesn't know where it is from.

I'm fully expecting the next response to be a link to the white paper where I was forced to fudge the authenticity issue that led to my original blog post.

If anyone does know where that quote is from, I would love to know.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The big 2014 Christmas Card Audit

This is the third year I've done this (see 2013 and 2012), so I'm beginning to get observable trends. This year the big thing I noticed is that yet again religious-themed cards rarely featured the word Christmas. Small things that stuck out included a fund-raising card for a political cause (the Countryside Alliance), the emergence of Owls as a theme, and the return of dogs in Santa hats.

New categories are marked with an asterisk And here are the numbers...

Total number of cards: 91 (down from 97 in 2013 and 104 in 2012)
Hand-made / home-produced cards: 7 (no change)
Cards with magnets on: 0 (no change)
*Cards with detachable tree decorations: 1

Cards sold in aid of charity: 47 (up from 44 in 2013 and 42 in 2012)
Of which...
Traidcraft cards: 8 (up from 5 last year)
Oxfam cards: None (for the second year running)
Main charity represented: Traidcraft
Total number of charities represented: 40 (down from 62 in 2013 and the same as 2012)
Marks and Spencer cards: 6 (down from 12 in 2013)
*Notable newcomer: RNLI (3 cards)
*'Political' fund-raising cards: 1 (Countryside Alliance)

Religious-themed cards: 27 ( down from 33 in 2013 and 37 in 2012)
Cards featuring the Nativity: 18 (up from 15)
Christmas story 'characters':
Three kings: 2 (down from 5 in 2013 and 9 in 2012)
The shepherds: 3 (down from 4 in 2013 but one more than in 2012)
The star of Bethlehem: 0 (down from 2 in 2013)

Other themes 
'Peace': 2 (stays the same)
Santa: 7 (down from 10 in 2013, but up from 6 in 2012)
Penguins: 4 (up from 3 in 2013, but down from 5 in 2012)
Various cartoon bears: 4 (up from 2 in 2013 but way down from the 12 bear high point in 2012)
Dogs in Santa Hats: 1 (up from 0 last year)
Deer/reindeer: 4 (down from 6)
Christmas decorations: 5 (up from 4)
Christmas trees: 4 (down from 5)
Robins: 4 (up from 3)
Mistletoe: 0 (down from 2)
Winter scene/scenery: 14 (double the 2013 total of 7)
*Snowmen: 5
*Owls: 3

Cards that mention 'Christmas' on the front: 33 (down from 35 in 2013 and 45 in 2012)

Conclusions and trends
Despite fewer cards received, many of the categories stayed pretty constant. The big change was the number of cards featuring winter scenes and scenery. They ranged from country churches covered in snow, through to the cute dog character Boofle, out sledging. I was very pleased to see a return in the Dogs wearing Santa Hats category, as I feel it captures the essence of Christmas. Although the overall total was down, the number of cards we received that raised funds for charity went up and percentage wise the balance towards fund-raising cards was much higher.What nice people we know!

Once I've done this for 2015 I will have four years worth of data and by then I can start creating graphs and stuff. So roll on January 2016!

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The long coat – a popular choice for scoundrel starship captains and space adventurers

It occurred to me the other day as I watched a small bit of Farscape on one of the outlying satellite channels that long coats seem a popular choice in outer space.

This is possibly because they swish behind you a bit like a cape without being as obviously dorky as a cape. In several deep-space adventures capes are only work by bad guys, so there’s that to contend with as well.

So, where did this all start? Thinking about it, Han Solo wears a long coat when he leads the rebel strike team on Endor. Admittedly this is a badly-fitting semi-camo trench-coat that looks like it was bought in a mall somewhere, but it’s the first long coat worn by a sci-fi hero that I can think of.

No one else in the team wears a coat like Han’s. He seems to favour his own gear over military issue. He does the same thing on Hoth, wearing a blue parka, while Luke wears the same uniform as all the other rebels. On Endor, Leia and Luke are dressed like the rest of the team. Han obviously feels the need to be flashy and different, by wearing his own ‘Big Easy’ style trench-coat.

Moving on to the 90s and we have John Crichton, the main lead in Farscape, sporting a black leather coat that in the context of the show is part of a Peacekeeper uniform. Several of the Peacekeepers wear coats like this as well, so the long coat is well established in the series as something worn by heroes and villains.

John isn’t a Peacekeeper; he is a lost Earthman on a living spaceship surrounded by hostile aliens, some of whom become less hostile and eventually become his friends. I don’t know when in his adventures John started wearing this coat, but he looks good in it and that’s the main thing.

Moving on a few years to the early noughties and we have Firefly, a short-lived show that has gained a cult following (I love it to bits). The coat worn by ships’ captain / smuggler / former soldier Malcolm Reynolds is greatly significant – it’s a ‘Browncoat’, part of the uniform of the defeated separatist forces that Mal fought for.

Wearing the Browncoat is Mal’s sartorial declaration that the war may be over but he has not surrendered. The term Browncoat is part of the fan’s lectionary. Rarely has an item of clothing been so important to the functional make-up of a character, or a whole series.

And to bring this bang up to date, we have Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. Star-Lord has two really neat coats in the film: A long coat, worn in the bombastic opening sequence, and a neat short red leather jacket worn at other times.

Star-Lord’s long coat accentuates his swagger as he attempts to rob an abandoned bank vault at the beginning of the film. It’s a scene that defines the character – unafraid, resourceful, tricksy and fun. The coat helps greatly in the introduction to him.

Looking over the long-coat-wearing characters here, there are some major similarities between them. They are all fiercely independent. They all operate outside the law, while still being relatively moral in their actions. They have an internal code they live up to. They are brave, willing to take risks for a long-shot at rewards. They don’t take crap from anyone. They are handy in a fight, but would prefer to smart-talk their way out of trouble. They inspire loyalty in their followers or crew.

And they all wear long coats.

It’s something I’m going to bear in mind when I next go coat-shopping. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Is the villain of the Guardians of the Galaxy film a cipher for Islamists?

This post has spoilers

In case you didn’t read my review of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was my favourite film for loads of reasons. I liked the characters. The story was fast-paced. It used retro-tastic songs to soundtrack action sequences. There were jokes.

But there is something that has niggled me slightly about it, and that’s the villain of the piece, Ronan the Accuser.

We first meet Ronan undertaking an arcane rite that is sacred to his people. He expands on this when he exposits in front of a captive, who he then kills. He is quickly described as a fanatic who won’t listen to the (presumably democratically elected) leaders of his race, the Kree, and has embarked on a personal mission to wipe out those who do not follow the ancient ways and traditions he has committed himself to.

He is basically a murderer with ambitions of genocide, setting out on a jihad.

Pertinent to that is the way he wear a head-dress that looks like the type traditionally worn in the Middle East.

I'm beginning to suspect that Ronan is a cipher for Islamist jihadis. Fanatics are the new villains in Hollywood – people motivated not by base human emotions like greed or vengeance, or compelled by their political creed to commit atrocities, but people who interpret their religion or tradition as mandating their terrible deeds.

Note that Ronan is not seen as typical member of the Kree. He is not under the control of the Kree government, which is both unable and unwilling to oppose him. This fits the narrative of our time where the Islamists are not ‘true Muslims’, but have struck out on their own terror-strewn path.

The problem with the ‘true Muslim’ distinction is that Islamic State, Al Qaida, Boko Haram, or any of the other groups that murder in the name of Allah say they are the true Muslims. Whether the people who lead those groups really believe that is hard to say, but it’s what they claim to believe. Similarly, Ronan believes he is the true bearer of the genuine Kree traditions.

Ronan’s religiously-inspired ruthlessness leads him to issue an order to execute every inhabitant of a prison that he invades with his followers. His aim is to wipe out all the life on Xandar, the home planet of the galactic police force, the Nova Corps. The Xandarians are heretics and blasphemers and must be wiped out.

While Guardians of the Galaxy was written and filmed a while before it was released in the Summer, it does seem prescient in the way it parallels the rise of Islamic State, which is basically a rogue warlord engaging in genocide against different ethnic and religious groups. Both IS and Ronan have a scorched earth policy when it comes to destroying the infidel.

Consciously or not, Hollywood and comic books do tend to reflect and give voice to the wider concerns of our culture. At the moment, Western democracy feels threatened and powerless in the face of Islamist terrorism. Star-Lord speaks for us when he says he isn’t going to stand by and let innocent people perish. It’s a just shame that in real life we can’t distract the Islamists with a dance-off while our genetically modified raccoon buddy removes their source of power.

Final point: Today ten journalists and cartoonists in Paris were murdered in their office by masked gunmen, who are thought to be Islamists. There is a risk to standing up to these violent hate-mongers. Good people die at the hands of fanatics – more so in real life than in films. But we can’t stand idly by. We are already involved.

Monday, January 05, 2015

My review of 2014 (movies, TV, music, books)

I didn’t blog much in 2014, but a lot happened and I want to post some kind of review of various ‘art’ highlights. So, here goes, my ‘Review of 2014’ blog post. First up, movies:

Best movie
Easily, Guardians of the Galaxy. It was unexpectedly funny. It was action-packed. It had a cracking musical soundtrack. The film was so good it even got me into buying comics for the first time since I was about 11. I like Rocket Racoon. Cathy likes Groot. It about sums us up.

Most unexpectedly good movie
The Book of Life. This was gorgeous animation, exploring themes of love and death and conquering your fears and atoning for wrongs. Easily the best animated film I’ve seen for ages, made with sumptuous rich colours that made it lovely.

Most disappointing movie
The Boxtrolls. Not enough about the trolls and a bit too much time spent with ghastly humans. The film was called the Boxtrolls and they were barely in it.  If I wanted a film with ghastly humans I’m sure I could find a better one.

Best scene in a movie
I’m going for Jennifer Lawrence’s meltdown in American Hustle when she screamed at Christian Bale that all she wanted was for him to love her. My heart ached at that scene. It’s just fantastic.

Now we’ve wrapped movies up, how about TV?

Best TV viewing of 2014
Brooklyn Nine Nine. I laughed out loud (literally out loud) at every single episode. Even Modern Family hasn’t managed that. The Thanksgiving episode just kept on getting funnier and funnier although my absolute favourite scene was when Jake Peralta was looking for a flat and saw one that was just a toilet in the middle of a bare expanse of concrete. And that wasn’t the worst thing about the flat.

Running Brooklyn Nine Nine a close second was Elementary. Johnny Lee Miller is just captivating. There was one episode where all he did was lean against a wall, but it was a lean of menace and disappointment and ennui and pensiveness. The man exudes the character just when he is leaning. The show is a belter too and it’s great fun trying to predict which of the people who have innocuously been presented to the viewer in the first ten minutes will turn out to be the murderer.

Most disappointing TV of 2014
Dr Who. The first episode had the Doctor claim he could “speak dinosaur” and somehow appear in a locked and sealed room. He is basically magic now. The second episode contained one of the most callous scenes I’ve ever seen in any TV show. The third episode was a dire spoof of Robin Hood films. I gave up then. I did see two episodes later on, but frankly the gubbins of the relationship triangle between the Doctor, Clara and whoever her boyfriend was, just got in the way of both the story and my will to live. I didn’t bother with the Christmas episode. My love for the show has waned that far.

Ok, so that’s TV, now for some music.

Best new sounds of 2014
Ward Thomas – From Where We Stand. The idea of Country music-singing twins from Hampshire sounds like a disaster but their music is great. I heard the single ‘Push for the Stride’ on Radio 2 and had to look it up straight away when I got home. Even better they are coming to Cardiff next year, playing The Globe on my birthday and we have tickets!

Best gig
Hard to choose this as we made it to six gigs this year, including Tony Wright at the cleanest rock club I have ever been to. (A guy came round putting people’s drinks on beermats as if they were coasters!) But probably the best gig was Darius Rucker on Cathy’s birthday. We travelled to Wolverhampton to see him and he was excellent, playing several old Hootie & the Blowfish tunes as well as his solo material. He finished with a cover of Champagne Supernova that was simply epic.

Best support act
I’m going to give this to Ariana and the Rose, who supported the Hoosiers at The Globe in Cardiff back in April. It’s a tough gig being a support act, but they were great, sounding a little bit like Garbage although not as grungy.

Best album I discovered in 2014
Bad Blood by Bastille. I kept hearing Pompeii on the music channels so put the album on my Amazon wish-list. Someone got it me for my birthday and I really liked the whole album. I was surprised to find Cathy did too. I came home one day and found she had put it on while washing up. It’s great driving music too. They are songs you can belt out at the top of your lungs if you want to.

One thing left, books...

Best fiction read this year
Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland. It’s a toss up between this and Microserfs, also by Coupland, which actually made me cry at the end. But Eleanor Rigby edges it simply because it’s the only book I’ve ever read that is searingly honest about loneliness and how no one ever warns you how hard it is to live with feeling lonely. I love Douglas Coupland’s books. I have to put them down every few pages to let the ideas sink in.

Best non-fiction read this year
Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. This is a ‘freakonomics’ style exploration of footballs looking at certain assumptions, like do managers make much of a difference and do England under-achieve at World Cups. The exploration of how poverty prevents developing nations from being genuine global competitors is fascinating.

Ok, there you go, that was my year. How was yours.