Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rewriting church history to fit your worldview – why some books for kids annoyed me

A while back I was in a Christian bookshop and found a range of children’s books on Heroes of the Faith. Nothing new there, except these were books about the early Church Fathers, many of whom were martyred as the authorities reacted to the spread of Christianity.

What surprised me was the publisher, Banner of Truth, who are better known as a purveyor of ultra-Reformed doctrinal tomes and incredibly long Bible commentaries that torture the grammar of the Greek text until it confesses. I didn’t know they did kids’ books, or that they recognised any church existing before John Calvin published his Institutes.

Intrigued, I started reading the book about Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was burnt to death by a mob when he refused to recant his faith. It was reasonably well-written and told the story without glorifying Polycarp’s tragic death, but highlighting his courage in the face of persecution.

There was one thing that really galled though. Good as the book was, and I really wanted to like it because church history is very interesting and I have little people in my life now who I could have bought the book for, I couldn’t get past the way the book referred to Polycarp as the ‘Minister’ of Smyrna.

This is just plain factually wrong. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna, with authority over all the churches in the district. That was how the early Church was set up. That was his title. That was why he was seized and put to death.

I wouldn’t have minded if the book had just called him the ‘leader of the churches in Smyrna’. That would have been right, and I understand that ‘bishop’ is a weird word for kids to relate to. It’s the specific use of the word ‘Minister’ that I’m complaining about here.

To call him a Minister is to impose very narrow ecclesiology, that was developed 1,300 years later, onto the historical situation. I would guess that to the Banner of Truth ultra-evangelicals, ‘bishop’ seems a bit Roman Catholic or Anglican. I know there is a general feeling among the hardline Reformed that those institutions are theologically tainted and irredeemably iffy. But still you can’t just take the title you have chosen as the one you are going to use in your brand of churchianity and then retroactively apply that to someone who was never appointed a ‘Minister’ in the way you appoint Ministers. That just feels dishonest.

At the end of the book there’s a whole bit about how the early heroes of the faith weren’t heroes because they were Ministers but because they courageously stood up for what they believed in. While I understand the point they are trying to make, this is wrong too. The early heroes of the faith weren’t heroes because they were Ministers, simply because they weren’t Ministers

A publisher that calls itself the Banner of Truth has chosen a title to live up to. The books it publishes should be true. In this case, relabelling things to fit the terminology you have chosen to describe your world diminishes its truth and presents something that is only partly true at best. 

I'm not sure why I find this so annoying, but I do.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The compelling mystery of ruins, and the things that lurk in them

If you've read The Lord of the Rings, what's your favourite part? My favourite of the three books is The Fellowship of the Ring. And my favourite part of The Fellowship of the Ring is when Gimli persuades the fellowship to enter the abandoned Dwarf realm of Moria. I have loved it ever since I was a child and my Mum read the book to me and my brother during long car journeys.

I'm not sure what it is about Moria, but I think that whole sequence is the best plotted and most compelling part of the entire book. It starts with Gandalf trying to work out how to get in. Then, just as he opens the doors, the fellowship are attacked by a hideous creature that lurks in the pool by the gate. After running into safety they hear the doors behind them being barricaded shut. From this point on, the only way out is forward. I guess that's part of the thing - everywhere else the characters have a choice. Here they have no choice. They have to keep going forward. Into the dark.

The gates of Moria

The film actually showed the journey through Moria quite well, although it was obvious immediately that there were no dwarves here. Just dusty, long-dead armoured skeletons. You don't learn that as quickly in the book. You have to wait until the fellowship find the annals of the dwarves who tried to retake Moria. As Gandalf reads the final, hurried entries, with the accounts of which dwarf heroes fell where, the sense of danger and impending doom is truly claustrophobic. Something evil has befallen in the ruins. And it is most likely still out there.

Discovery in the dark

That sense of evil lurking in the ruins is also present early on in The Magician's Nephew, which I think has been my favourite of the Narnia books since I was a kid. Written as a prequel to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, some time after that book, The Magician's Nephew tells the story of how Narnia came to be, as witnessed by two small children, Digory and Polly, who had been given the opportunity to move between different worlds. But here's the thing. Before they discovered the world that would become Narnia, the two children discovered Charn.

Exploring Charn

Charn was a nearly dead world, a ruinous, gigantic, deserted city under a blood-red, tired sun. Drawn by enchantment, the children enter a hall of kings and queens and wake the last Queen of Charn, a cruel and wicked tyrant called Jadis. She tells them about the grandeur of Charn; the magnificence of the world before it met its doom. And we learn that Jadis was the author of that doom, using a deep and terrible magic to win a civil war against her sister, by extinguishing all other life on the planet.

The mystery of Charn

It's a magnificent, evocative tale, which I always found more interesting than the birth of Narnia that follows. And while it provides an origin story, of sorts, for evil in the good and perfect world of Narnia, the emergence of Jadis in Charn is a much more interesting story. The series of royal statues grow harsher and crueler as the children walk along them, reaching the pinnacle of hatefulness in Jadis. The implication is that power corrupts and poisons people, leading to a situation where a wicked queen would rather eliminate every other living being than not rule over them.

I've often felt this was a commentary by C.S. Lewis on the existence of nuclear weapons and the folly of the idea of mutually assured destruction preventing someone from starting a nuclear war. What if you got someone so totally warped and wicked that they would rather turn the world into a burning atomic husk than allow their opponents to continue to exist?

I'm not sure why as a kid drawn to the idea of ruined civilisations. I think both Moria and Charn exuded a mystery that you didn't get in many imaginary worlds. There was a sense that something has happened here - something terrible. And you need to find out what it was. But finding out won't make it better. In fact, it might make it even more terrible.

But at least you will know.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Analysing takeaway menus for marketing fails

I live in a terraced house and that makes it very easy for people to deliver leaflets. We get numerous flyers through the door every week, and, being interested in marketing communications, I usually look at them critically. I know that might seem harsh but I don't ask them to stick their material through my door. So that makes it fair game.

This takeaway menu came through the door recently. I think it makes a few mistakes.

One of the key lessons of proofreading anything is always check the headings and sub-headings. That's where I've come unstuck in the past. Ooh, "Satifaction". Right there in the tagline. From experience, I know I would feel physically sick if I'd missed that.

I hate it when I make that sort of lapse because I feel it makes me look unprofessional. But the typo isn't the worst thing about that phrase. In fact, I probably wouldn't have considered the phrase at all if it didn't have a typo, as it's essentially meaningless.

For a takeaway food outlet's slogan. I'm not sure what it's saying. It's trying to be all about the customer by saying 'your satifaction', but then it's also all about their business. First rule of marketing: WIIFM - what's in it for me? Well, what is in it for me? Why should I care about your future? Why is that going to make me choose your takeaway over the many others that post leaflets through my door? (So many others!)

WIIFM is rooted in neuroscience. We know that the sub-cortex is very me-centric. It's the place where our survival instincts are located, which is why it exerts such an influence over our decision-making. Which is why customer-centred marketing almost always works so well - it appeals to the non-conscious part of the brain that makes snap decisions. 'This is about me. This will be be good for me. I want this.' You don't even think those thoughts. The brain decides without consciously thinking about it. 'Your satisfaction is our future' doesn't appeal to that part of the brain at all. It's a nice, bland, generic promise of good service based on wanting to please you. But it doesn't appeal as much as say 'Hot food at your door when you want it' would.

Also, if we were going to be really hard on the producers of this leaflet, why does it say 'burgers' under a picture of a pizza and 'pizza' under a picture of a burger? That's just an added layer of confusion on top. Most people will know what those things are, so we could question whether they need labelling at all. But if you are going to label things then really they should be labelled correctly.

Mislabelling things like this introduces incongruity into the message that is being communicated. While this might be at a very basic level - probably below the conscious level - the decision-making part of the brain will pick up on it. Deep down humans don't like incongruity. It triggers that survival instinct again and so we subconsciously reject the things that don't fit as possibly dangerous.

Of course, food from a takeaway might be intrinsically dangerous, either in the short term with an upset tummy or in the long term with obesity problems. So, maybe this incongruity is doing us all a favour.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Updating my list of 'five star books'

Back in January 2013 I published the list of books I'd read that I gave five stars to, that being the highest rating I give books in my notebook where I list the books I read.

Anyway, three years on, I thought it worth updating it with a list of the books I've read since then and thought worthy of five stars. All of this is quite subjective, obviously. Feel free to comment whether you agree or disagree.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne
Travels with Charley - John Steinbeck
Eleanor Rigby - Douglas Coupland
Microserfs - Douglas Coupland
Life After God - Douglas Coupland (read some quotes that stood out to me here)
Hey Nostradamus - Douglas Coupland
The Gum Thief - Douglas Coupland
Gospel of Freedom - Jonathan Rieder

Looking back through my reviews I can't believe I only gave Cannery Row by John Steinbeck four and a half stars. That book is great. I did say it was subjective! In case you think I've just gone nuts about Douglas Coupland, I have read most of his books in the past three years and there were several that I didn't rate so much, including Shampoo Planet and Girlfriend in a Coma.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Celebrating my Mum’s 70th birthday

I was asked to give a speech at my Mum’s 70th birthday party. Here it is. There were a couple of ad libs as well, but I can’t remember them. The asides (in brackets) were scripted.

Honestly, Mum loved it!

This birthday is a bit different to last year – Mum had planned a quiet celebration but then I had some unexpected difficult news and so Mum and Dad came suddenly to Cardiff to see us. Sorry for causing you such an unusual birthday last year, Mum. I hope this year’s makes up for it.

As we prepared for today, my wife Cathy trawled through photo albums and CDs of photos to create a photo exhibit. There are some very funny photos in there. But along with the best-forgotten fashions, and one or two outfits that still look really good, the one constant in so many of the photos are family, friends, people and celebration. We had photos from many previous birthdays and it’s obvious that as a family we mark milestones.

Cathy's hard work

There’s also a photo in there of Mum teaching me when we lived in the Gambia. Mum taught me to read and it wasn’t long before I was reading anything I could get my hands on – including medical journals someone gave me as a joke. [Mum reminded me afterwards that the only word I got stuck on was hypernatremia. For reference, I was 5.]

That shared love of reading and of books has always been something that has brought Mum and me together. When we were very little we had a very wet holiday in the Lake District (I don’t think there’s any other kind!) and we spent a lot of time in the car driving to various places where the rain didn’t matter. Along the way Mum read us chapter after chapter of The Lord of the Rings – and I’m sure my fondness for that book relates to hearing it in Mum’s voice first.

[Actually, Mum told me afterwards that she thinks that was a holiday we had travelling round the South of England, but hey, it’s still true that she read all 1,061 pages to us. And who’s making the speech here, anyway?]

As a teenager I started reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and it wasn’t long before Mum was also fully conversant with the misadventures of Rincewind the wizard and the streetwise cynicism of Captain Sam Vimes. So whether it was the mines of Moria or the streets of Ankh-Morpork, we always had those shared worlds to discuss.

It’s funny the things you learn from your Mum, and what you take with you into adult life. This year I will have been involved in Fair Do’s, the fair trade shop in Cardiff, for 20 years. But I was involved in Shrewsbury Fair Trade first, thanks to Mum.

In fact, I’ve often said the fair trade movement in Britain was built on the back of coerced teenage labour. I lugged a lot of boxes on her behalf – the trade-off was after I dropped her off I could keep the car for a couple of hours. Mum’s car was a Vauxhall Cavalier (the classic 80’s design with the boxy front end). It became my first car in the end until it sadly died of rust and over-use. But ask Mum and she will tell you it was a good car and we both loved it.

So we have memories and milestones, but even on the cusp of 70 my Mum is full of surprises. Just after Christmas we went as a family to see the new Star Wars film. Afterwards, as we left the cinema, Mum said: “Oh that was so much better than those prequel films. The fight scenes were so much more realistic!” (If you think that’s surprising, you should hear her talk about how much she likes Die Hard!)

So, from Middle Earth to a galaxy far, far away, thank you Mum for being there with us. That’s something worth celebrating.

Happy Birthday, Mum!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

What makes TV adverts memorable: Some nuggets from psychology research

I’m currently studying a part-time MSc in Business Psychology and we have moved on to a module about ‘external communications’. Branding and advertising, in other words.

Stars of a memorable TV ad...
I've been reading a number of papers while preparing for my first essay assignment. For fun, and to spread the knowledge, I’ve pulled out 9 factoids about TV advertising that have been evidenced by psychological researchers. Spot how many of these are true for you and how many techniques are being used by the broadcasters.

TV ads are remembered more if they are followed by ‘congruent programme content’, e.g. a beer advert is followed by a scene where people drink beer. (Furnham et al 2002)

However, TV ads are remembered less if they follow ‘congruent programme content’. (Furnham et al 2002) This means smart script writers would want to know what ads are going where to put all their congruent scenes in the right place. You want your scene in a pub after the beer advert, not before.

People are more likely to remember longer adverts than shorter ones. (Pieters & Bijmolt, 1997)

Stick too many adverts together and it’s more likely none of them will be remembered particularly well. Increasing the number of ads in a block from 4 to 5 begins to negatively impact memory. (Pieters & Bijmolt, 1997)

However, brand recognition afterwards is not reduced by having more adverts. People might not be able to consciously recall the advert, but the brand name is lurking in their brain somewhere! They will recognise it if they are shown it later. (Brown & Rothschild, 1993)

Don’t bother running your ads in the middle of commercial breaks. People tend to remember the first and last adverts in a sequence. (Terry, 2005) This is true even if they are the exact same adverts, just shown in a different order.

People are also more likely to remember adverts that appear in the earlier commercial breaks in a programme, than in ones later on. (Terry, 2005)

Leaving very short gaps between TV ads makes them easier to remember. (Pieters & Bijmolt, 1997) This one is clearly being used on a lot of channels these days. The break in programming catches our attention as viewers. Probably.

The BBC would make a killing if it could flog space in the middle of East Enders. Advertising content placed in ‘happy’ programmes was not remembered as well as in ‘unhappy’ content. (Furnham et al 2002) The effect of an unhappy programme is magnified if the advert is violent and/or offensive. (We are lovely people, aren’t we? Remembering violent adverts in miserable programmes.)


  • Brown & Rothschild (1993) "Reassessing the Impact of Television Advertising Clutter," Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 20
  • Furnham, Bergland & Gunter (2002) "Memory for Television Advertisements as a Function of Advertisement–Programme Congruity." Applied Cognitive Psychology 16
  • Pieters & Bijmolt (1997) "Consumer Memory for Television Advertising: A Field Study of Duration,Serial Position, and Competition Effects." Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 23
  • Terry (2005) "Serial Position Effects in Recall of Television Commercials." The Journal of General Psychology, 132(2)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The final post about our Christmas cards: Which Bible verse is the most Christmassy?

Having done my annual audit, posted 10 of my favourite cards and then done a second, longer, post about who sends what kind of card, this, I promise is the last post on my blog about Christmas cards.

In my previous post about them I logged the kind of messages that appear on the front of the cards, including Bible verses. This then got me thinking about Bible verses that are used on Christmas cards, generally and I began to wonder what would be the most popular. I also realised there were no religious designs in the Christmas cards I posted before. so I have rectified this and included some designs in this post...

I really liked this one

I expected the early chapters of Matthew and Luke to feature heavily, as these are where the nativity stories appear in the gospels. The 'story' most people know from school plays and Christmas church services is actually a mish-mash of the two nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, which are actually very different to each other. On freelance theology I've written how the reason they are so different is because they aren't historical stories, but theological stories instead - they are written to make certain points about Jesus. [Read the article here.] I think that's probably why the stories are so different.

Dozing donkey and curious sheep

Given that the wise men / kings / astrologers / magicians appear in Matthew's story and not Luke's, while the shepherds feature in Luke's story and not Matthew's, and that we had 11 cards featuring the three kings and absolutely zero cards featuring the shepherds, I thought we were much more likely to see verses from Matthew appearing on the cards. Turns out, I was wrong.

In total we had 10 cards featuring Bible verses, which is about ten per cent of all the cards we were sent (working from a sample of 103).

The verses featured were, as follows:

Psalm 139.11-12
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,’
    even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

(I have no idea why that is considered Christmassy, but there you go. Strangely, this appeared on a card featuring an owl, and wasn't religious-looking at all. Although, I guess owls are birds of pray, har har har.)

This is the 'owl' card with a Bible verse in

Isaiah 9.6
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

(An Old Testament prophecy that Christians believe is about Jesus.)

Matthew 2.11
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

(This is part of the story of the three wise men, or 'three kings'. It was on one of the cards featuring the three wise men, but only one.)

One of the Kings was ginger...

Luke 2.4-5
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

(As heard in every school nativity play, ever.)

John 1.9
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

(Fun fact: the Gospel of John doesn't have any nativity stories. But it does have a "Prologue", which is probably the most linguistically sophisticated, theologically complicated and semi-mystical part of the whole New Testament. It may also be borrowed from pre-existing Gnostic traditions; it certainly draws on them.)

1 John 1.5b
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

(1 John is a short book towards the end of the New Testament that is traditionally ascribed to the same author as the Gospel of John. It's actually a letter, or 'epistle', sent to a Christian community by someone in authority. It shares a lot of common language with the gospel, including using the word 'light' a lot. The 'b' in the Bible reference indicates they only used the second half of the verse.)

More inquisitive sheep

And the most common Bible verse on Christmas cards, appearing on four of them waaaaaaas (drumroll...)

Luke 2.11
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

Although two of these were printed in ye olde worlde King James Version:
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And one of the cards quoted verse 10 as well, but then edited both verses to come up with their own version, really:
Great tidings of great joy which will be to all people!. For there is born... a Saviour who is Christ, the Lord.

Meh, close enough.

This verse even appeared on one card in English and Welsh (where Luke is Luc):
Ganwyd i chwi heddiw yn nhref Dafydd, Waredwr, yr hwn yw'r Meseia, yr Argkwydd.

So, there you go, Luke 2.11 is apparently the most Christmassy Bible verse in the whole Bible. At least according to the people who make Christmas cards.

Previous posts

Annual audits: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012

Monday, January 18, 2016

Branding brilliance: How to make your Death Metal band stand out

This has been going around Twitter recently as an example of how to make your death metal band stand out. As a general branding lesson I think it's awesome.

Who wouldn't want to go to Deathfest 2?

I can't even read many of the names that are all trying to be more-death-metal-than-thou, but I will remember Party Cannon with their bright colours and bubbly font! (Apparently they are from Scotland. There's a track on YouTube if you can bear it.)

The branding lesson is - if you want to be memorable, don't take the existing trope and try to make yourself a more extreme version of it. If anything that will make you less noticeable.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Things you see in Newcastle: "Bones" - recycled vinyl records from the USSR

Last year, Cathy and I visited Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. While there we had a few hours in the centre of the city and visited the art exhibition space linked to the Baltic. The exhibition was 'The art of the needle' - the art of, or inspired by, vinyl records.

As you can imagine from an art exhibition, there was a mix of stuff there. Most of it was easily dismissable hipsterish nonsense - who wants to go to a four hour performance of a DJ playing scratched and warped records? But there was one bit that really captured my imagination - a display of "Bones", Soviet-era bootlegs of banned Western albums, printed on the only ready source of vinyl: used medical x-ray sheets.

With the records back-lit, you can see what recycled vinyl looks like. I imagine the audio quality is terrible, but really, these are display pieces.

This prompted me to think about 'art'. There were plenty of intentional art pieces in the exhibition. People had gone out and purposefully tried to use vinyl records or record sleeves to make something else. But none of those things wowed me the way these did. What I find interesting is that these discs are repurposing something else - in this case medical images that are no longer needed - and in the process are creating something unique and, in it's own way, beautiful. But they are a by-product of a process of sharing art and weren't intended as art themselves, and yet, they were displayed in an art exhibition and were easily the most evocative exhibit.

So, what does that tell us about art? That the best stuff happens by accident? That art is a by-product of inventive minds solving problems? That artists are often trying too hard to make art, instead of focusing their intentions on making something useful that turns out to be art?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Christmas card audit part 2: a demographic breakdown

For the past four years I have reviewed the common themes that appear in all the Christmas cards that Cathy and I get sent. This may seem a bit sad, but I get a lot of interested people talking to me about it. Someone we know who sells greetings cards for a living finds it interesting enough to talk about with her company. (And even to the point of doing her own audit!)

Anyway, apparently this has prompted a discussion regarding religious themes on cards and how they break down. The director of my friend's company has proposed the following: "The breakdown of religious v secular is always revealing, although there is a marked difference across the ages with the more serious 'I'm making a statement' religious cards falling in popularity against the more cartoony 'I just think this is a sweet image' religious cards."

My friend then added her own thoughts: "I was probably one of those 'got to make a statement' people until very recently and only sent 'religious' cards. I used one design for everyone. Now I send a mix, and think a bit more about what image I'm sending, often sending Christians Christmas themed cards but also to non-Christians too." (By Christmas themed, I think she means the less religious aspects of Christmas.)

So, I think those are some interesting hypotheses hidden in those conversations that we can test out: Firstly, are religious people more likely to send religious themed cards? And secondly, if they do, are older religious card senders more likely to send cards that make a 'statement' than younger senders?

For the purpose of this survey I am going to define 'religious' people as people who I know are 'regular church-goers' (RCGs). There are a lot of people out there who would tick Christian in the census, but don't seem to have much more of a religious commitment than that and probably wouldn't regard themselves as religious.

To understand the data a bit better, I also need to know the kind of people sending cards. The age-range is between 4 and 96. There is a mix of ages in every decade between them, with a higher proportion of people over the age of 50. There are a large number of family members and friends from a variety of social backgrounds: school, university, current and former workplaces, neighbours, the church we attend, and former churches we attend. So, this is a wide mix of people, including a large number of RCGs, making it an ideal field to draw on to test the idea that religious people are more likely to send religious cards and to see if there is a difference based on age. I'm going to break it up into the following age groups: children, 20-40, over 40-60, over 60-80 and over 80.

As I've got the opportunity, I'm also going to add in a more in-depth breakdown of the kinds of messages on the front of cards (something my friend did in her audit). I've already noted that the trend in 2015 for religious themed cards to be less likely to use the word 'Christmas' on the front followed previous years. But there are carols, Bible verses, and other messages, which are as interesting to record. I am also going to log how many are 'personal' e.g. 'To a special son/ husband/ uncle' etc. I should say at this point that Cathy helped with the data analysis, so from hereon in I'm going to use 'We' and 'Us'.

So here goes. Firstly a breakdown of who is more likely to send which types of cards. We divided the cards four ways according to whether the sender was an RCG or not, and what theme it was. Two cards were discounted as they weren't from individuals (one was a church and the other was a company). Here's how the numbers divided up:

What we see there is the relatively predictable finding that non-religious senders are much more likely to send cards with non-religious themes. However, the reverse isn't particularly true with RCG senders only slightly more likely to send a religious-themed card.

We had very few 'cartoony' religious cards - just six in the whole sample, which probably renders the second hypothesis inconclusive. Here is the breakdown of who our of our sample sent which kind of message.

Pretty much all the religious cards we received were serious. The table shows that the odds tip towards religious cards as the age of the senders increases, but in the oldest segment there is almost a half and half split between religious cards and non-religious cards. As mentioned there were only six cartoony religious cards, and they were in the two younger adult brackets (adults between 20 and 60).

Looking at the messages on the front of the cards then, we find the following breakdown:

As pointed out in my original audit, the majority of cards that said 'Christmas' on the front did not have a religious design. a lot of religious designs had lines or verses from Christmas carols. Two had Bible verses on the front. There were four other religious messages. Three cards had been bought with a "To" message on the front. The divide between religious and non-religious cards that didn't have any message at all on the front was about equal, taking into account the higher number of cards with a religious theme.

And, a final table... This shows the sender age compared to the type of religious message likely to be included on the front of a card.

Again, we are dealing with small numbers, which kind of skews the data. But you can see that all the generic religious messages fall into one age bracket and both the cards with Bible verses on the front were sent by people in the age 60-80 bracket. The cards with carols on the front were sent with a near-as-makes-no-difference cross-sectional split across the age ranges.

One final note, because Cathy was interested in this, we counted up the charity cards by sender type. We found that 40 RCG senders sent charity cards, compared to 20 non-religious senders. Given that in our sample there were twice as many RCGs as non-RCGs, this implies religious belief makes no difference to the choice of buying cards that support a charity. Which is quite a finding! Cathy also wanted to know whether there was a greater trend towards buying charity cards in a supermarket in a given group. We had 10 supermarket charity cards from RCGs (exactly a quarter) and 9 from non-RCGs (almost half). Quite what this means is less clear, although it shows that supermarket charity cards are a good fundraising mechanism.

So, there you go. I have one more analysis of the data to come, fueled more by interest in theology than anything else. But this has been a long post already, so it will have to wait!

Friday, January 15, 2016

This is how a groom and his groomsmen make an entrance at a wedding

One of the real highlights of last year was being asked to be Best Man for one of my best friends, all-round creative bright spark and fairly decent graphic designer, Matt, as he married the lovely Lauren.

One of the things I really had in mind as Best Man was a shot for us groomsmen, because one of the things about weddings is that there are usually lots of shots, quite rightly, of the bride and the bridesmaids, but you don't often get memorable shots of the male side of the wedding shenanigans.

I'm not a photographer, although I have many friends who are, but I do know a bit about creating images that will work. I've run some photo-shoots for work purposes and had a clear idea of what I want the photos to end up looking like. Some photographers listen to you and some don't. Fortunately Matt had booked the former type - when I explained what I wanted, he knew exactly what I meant. (Personally, after working with many photographers, I would say that what sets the real pros apart from the rest, but that's just my opinion.)

Anyway, as I explained to the photographer, I wanted something reminiscent of this - probably one of the most iconic (if not the iconic) movie posters of the 1990s.

 That image of a group of suited and booted guys on their way to complete a job. (but perhaps looking a bit happier.)

(Amusingly, one of the groomsmen, Lauren's littlest brother, had no idea what we were talking about as Reservoir Dogs came out about ten years before he was born. Which didn't make me feel old at all...)

Anyway, it took a few shots, but we got there in the end.

Yeah. Nailed it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I promised you some Christmas cards, so here you go

Cathy has been a star and scanned in some of the Christmas cards that we received in 2015. (Read the annual audit here) So, for your enjoyment, here are the 10 cards that really stood out for us this year. Enjoy!

First up - one of the dogs in Santa hats cards we got this year. He looks happy it's Christmas...

What could be better than a pug in a Santa hat? How about a dog driving a car while wearing a Santa hat?

Cathy says the one on the right is obviously meant to be me. What do you think?

(I only noticed when compressing these that he is kind of wearing Shrewsbury Town colours. Freaky.)

Anyway, we had some other snowmen (snowpeople?) too. I liked this snow family.

Want to get in my wife's good books for life? Draw her a Snoopy card! The kid who did this was 8. She did a better job than I would have.

I quite liked this deer card. It's cute and it also has a beveled edge like a stamp making it feel much posher. Die-cut cards aren't that common so it stood out.

Googly eyes! Always a winner. A pun! Toast! Everything you would want on a card, here.

I always love cards that teach me something new. Here's a charity I have never heard of before: Perennial, the charity that cares for horticulturalists in need. (Loaded up large so you can click on it to read the text)

But in terms of charity logos, this, for the Roald Dahl Marvellous Children's Charity, wins hands down.

And finally, there is always one card that makes you think, 'What on earth...' This year's winner in that category has a back story and was in a good cause, but even so, was one of the strangest card designs I think we've ever received. (Again loaded as a larger file - click on it to see it in all its glory! Be warned, though. You can't unsee it.)

So, there you go. If any of your cards made the cut, then well done and thank you for sending us a card.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2015 in review: The non-fiction books I read

I've already blogged about the fiction I read in 2015. Here are some short reviews of the non-fiction I read during the year. I've divided them up into sections.

I do read quite a few football books. The joke in book group is that I tend to read books about goalkeepers, particularly German goalkeepers. This year I kept up the tradition...

The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper - Jonathan Wilson
This is the book about goalkeepers and starts from the interesting premise that goalkeepers are different, both in terms of the role they play and psychologically. The historical stuff about the development of goalkeeping as a specialist role is really interesting. Unfortunately it gets bogged down discussing the various goalkeepers produced by different countries. While the research into, say, Cameroonian keepers, or the inheritors of Lev Yashin's spot in the Russian national team, can't be faulted, the material does all get a bit samey. There are also a few occasions when the author references stuff with the assumption the reader will know what he is talking about. I got most of them, but some I had to look up.

The Incredible Adventures of the Unstoppable Keeper - Lars Pfannenstiel
I got sent this to review for When Saturday Comes. Lars Pfannenstiel is a German journeyman keeper who ended up playing on all six continents, although never for anyone particularly good. He seems to regularly ditch everything to follow the gilded promises of agents or club owners, which invariably come to nothing. He cuts a fairly naive figure as a result. My (longer) review for WSC is online here.

An Autobiography - Pat Jennings
When I was a kid I collected football stickers (I still do!) and the first collection my brother and I had was Panini's 'Football 85'. The first team in the album were, of course, Arsenal, and the first player was their goalkeeper, Pat Jennings. So, he is one of those players who I can picture really clearly (at least, his sticker!). This autobiography was from 1983 and it's interesting to a point. He comes across as fairly dull, but some of the things he talks about aren't. For example, the stuff people chucked at him from the terraces. He ended up with a dart (!) in his arm on a couple of occasions. There's also a bit late on in the book which just wouldn't appear in a book by a pro sportsman now, when he worries that players playacting and pretending to be injured would make other people think footballers are "poufs". That's a word that doesn't tend to be used these days. Altogether now, "It was acceptable in the eighties..."

Full Time - Tony Cascarino
Not a goalkeeper, but another footballer from a different era. Cascarino played for a number of top clubs and also the Republic of Ireland in the late 80s and the 90s. This was one of the first truly confessional footballer autobiographies and it is really interesting. The section when he talks about splitting up with his wife is raw and honest and you can tell he feels like an utter shit about the way he treated her. There's a revelation that he might not have ever been eligible to play for Ireland after all, and an interesting accounting of where all the money he made disappeared to. It's hard to read the book and not like Tony Cascarino, mainly because he is being honest about how unlikeable he is. I'd quite like to read an updated version to find out what happened to him after he retired.

Gospel of Freedom - Jonathan Rieder
This is a very scholarly, yet accessible, study of Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' that unpicks King's theology of non-violence and liberation to thoroughly explain it. It's rare I would use the term 'life-changing' of any book, but this has really impacted on me. Particularly the challenge of Dr King regarding what kind of 'extremists' we will be. In a world that seems to be dominated by the actions of extremists, the call to be extremists of love and justice, is still powerfully relevant.

Other non-fiction
A Universe from Nothing - Lawrence Krauss
This is trying to make astrophysics simple and it must work because I understood it. Put simply, it proposes that the existence of the universe was inevitable given quantum fluctuations. There is no 'cause' to the universe; it just is. In philosophical terms this means the world is just a 'brute fact' and various cause-related arguments for God's existence are rendered moot.

Too Much Information - Dave Gorman
This is like a book version of Dave Gorman's TV show Modern Life is Goodish. He makes some great points about how spammers ruin Twitter and how bands shouldn't stick new songs on 'Greatest Hits' albums (or release such albums if, in fact, they haven't had many hits!), but generally it's one of those semi-forgettable books you breeze through, chuckle at, and then stick on the shelf to never read again.

So, that's it. All in all I read 22 books in 2015. Not a bad reading rate!

Previous posts:
The Douglas Coupland books I read in 2015
The other non-fiction I read in 2015

Monday, January 11, 2016

What leaders might really be for - the lesson of Sir Philip Dilley

I don't normally comment on current events, but the resignation of Sir Philip Dilley, the Chair of the Environment Agency who was on holiday in Barbados while half the country flooded out over Christmas, has prompted a thought around leadership.

Sir Philip has said in his statement that when he took the three-day-a-week position (that carries a six figure salary) he didn't realise he was going to need to be on call all the time. He has a point. The Environment Agency has a CEO and numerous directors (who are also presumably on substantial salaries) and quite what we would expect a sixty year-old to personally do in the face of such dreadful floods is unclear. The flak he got in the press for daring to take a holiday abroad with his family was unfair and I can see why he would be annoyed enough to quit. Who needs the hassle, when you've got a knighthood and presumably a decent pension from a career at the top in engineering?

But what Sir Philip illustrates is a tendency of public sector leadership that I've noticed in the part of the public sector where I work, namely healthcare. True, the Environment Agency is a little bit different to a large healthcare organisation, but the function he seems to be playing here is similar to what happens to many healthcare CEOs.

I've just completed an MSc module on the psychology of leadership, which has meant I've had to do some reading around the subject from a more scientific viewpoint rather than the usual 'inspirational' material that I normally think of when 'leadership' as a subject is mentioned. I was particularly interested in the idea that leaders emerge in a complex system and this often leads to conflict with leaders who are appointed to positions and given authority.

(Certainly, it's the case that when a person in a leadership position expresses a view in a meeting you will see people slyly look to the person who has emerged as a leader in the group to see what they think. You see this especially with clinicians listening to ideas from executives. They will look and see what Dr X or Nurse Z think about it.)

Healthcare is a complex system, or realistically, several complex systems that intersect and sometimes derail each other. Leaders often compete - for resources if nothing else. Competition is not necessarily to do with ego, just the natural outworking of trying to plan in unplanned systems.

Realistically, you look at some of the massive healthcare organisations out there and you quickly realise that no one person could ever lead such an operation. There is too much unknown and unknowable in the systems - and that's just the systems we know about, let alone the other things pulling strings that we have no real handle on.

So, what is the function of a leader in such a system? Well, on one level, it's to not lead. I have been immensely privileged to meet several healthcare CEOs and pretty much all of them sum up their leadership style as trying to get out of the way of the people who are doing the stuff, and maybe somehow helping to make life easier for them by smoothing down obstacles.

But there's another role for leaders as well. It's to be the person to blame if things go horribly wrong, as Philip Dilley has found out. Removing him does nothing to reverse the devastation of the floods or repair any of the damage, but we have found someone to 'blame'. He has now resigned and someone has paid for the calamity.

The same thing happens in healthcare. Since I started working in the healthcare sector every NHS Wales organisation has had at least one change of CEO. Some have had several.

I deeply respect the CEOs I've met, and have no reason to believe the ones I haven't met aren't just as good. I've known some leaders who have moved on under a cloud. But I think this is nothing to do with their competency or their attitudes. It's just a sad fact that the main role of a CEO is to take the blame if things go wrong and unfortunately the odds seem to be about 50/50 whether something beyond your control will go wrong on your watch. And if it does, it will be hard to stay on.

This might sound incredibly cynical. It's not meant to be. It could well be wrong, but it's just my perspective on leadership, as one of the led.

If you liked this you could read: The missing perspective on leadership

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Brooklyn Nine Nine - Series 3 and it's getting relationshippy, hmmm....

I'm a huge fan of Brooklyn Nine Nine. I think it's true to say I laughed out loud at least once during every episode of the first two series. Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta is brilliant at delivering witty lines and the cast around him are equally good at playing comedy straight.

But season 3 has just started and I fear it is heading into the same kind of trouble that has plagued other good sitcoms before it. It's getting relationshippy.

I love these guys
Jake and Amy are now an item. Season 2 ended with them kissing and then a cliff-hanger. They are now trying to work out the relationship. The problem is that in sitcom-world, unrequited love, or relationships being thwarted is always more interesting than when the mismatched, oft-thwarted lovers finally get together.

For evidence: even though everyone wanted Ross and Rachel to get together, the relationship was not the opportunity for comedy that the preamble had been, with Ross dreamy-eyed over an oblivious Rachel and hating her boyfriend, whoever that was in any given episode. Similarly, while how Monica and Chandler got together was funny, their being together was less funny. Friends went from being slick and smart to being schmaltzy and almost unwatchable when it got relationshippy.

Just about everyone who loved Frasier will agree that it went rapidly downhill once Niles and Daphne's unrequited romance was requited. Again, the trick to that comedic genius was Niles being in love with Daphne and her not knowing about it, even though everyone else did. Putting them together would have been the perfect way to end the show, because, realistically, it's not worth watching it after they got together.

The same dynamic of lovesick dolt and oblivious girl is what made Leonard and Penny so enjoyable on-screen in the early years of The Big Bang Theory. That show has gradually married or paired off its four main male characters now. Hopefully they will learn from Frasier and make Sheldon and Amy's inevitable wedding the finale.

We've even seen a similar problem in the otherwise epic Parks & Recreation. They effectively had to bin off Ann and Chris as quickly as possible after they got hitched because they were no longer interesting. And it's a wonder that Leslie and Ben's nuptials didn't sour the whole thing too. Except the real dynamic there was always Leslie and Ron rather than her romantic relationship, so maybe that was the thing that saved it.

The thing is that relationships themselves are inherently settled, while the best comedy comes from unpredictability. That's why Joey was the only character from Friends for whom a spin-off series could possibly work. Comedy is also rooted in pathos. We feel for the love-struck Niles or Ross more than the loved-up versions of themselves, because we feel their pain and share their hope.

I've said before how brave the writers and cast of Seinfeld were to quit at the top of their game, when they were still the number one comedy in America (and possibly the planet). Season 9 is still one of the best seasons of Seinfeld. But it's telling that none of the main characters are anywhere near a serious relationship, except for Elaine - although her relationship with Puddy could only be described as disastrous. If Jerry or George had genuinely settled down the comedy would have slowly dissipated away. (Of course, George had a near miss, but that doomed relationship became a hilarious millstone around his neck in later years.)

So, will Brooklyn Nine Nine buck the trend? A lot of the humour in the first two series came from Jack and Amy sparking off each other and bickering. Now they profess feelings for each other. Can this still be funny? (It's the same issue Modern Family will face now that Hayley and Andy are officially together - we will have to wait and see there too.) I hope the writers can avoid the relationship pitfall, because Brooklyn Nine Nine is arguably the best thing on TV right now (at least until Elementary comes back) and I really hope they can pull off a third amazing series.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

2015 in review: Other fiction books I read

I've already blogged about the six Douglas Coupland novels I read this year. Here is a list of the other fiction that I read (or finished reading) during 2015.

A Little Love Song - Michelle Magorian
This was my 'Book Group Secret Santa' book. Set in World War II, two teenage girls move to the country for safety and suddenly are able to live free of adult influence. It was quite sympathetically drawn although had a bit of a too happy ending, but it dealt with some mature themes despite being ostensibly a book for older kids. One bit, involving a person hiding orange peel about their person, made me laugh out loud.

Bonjour Tristesse - Francois Sagan
This is a Penguin Classic and came in a set of other classics. In its favour, it's quite short, so you can get the feeling of 'Yeah, I read a classic; without killing yourself to finish an epic tome. It's about a cynical teenage girl who uses sex and emotional manipulation to get what she wants from life. It was apparently considered scandalous when it was published, but I got a bit bored with it. The main character is unlikeable, which I know is kind of the point, but I found it was difficult to engage with her or her reasons for doing what she did.

Tuf Voyaging - George RR Martin
This was a reasonably interesting science fiction story split into four separate stories. The first one was excellent, probably some of the most enjoyable science fiction I've read for a while as space-wanderer Havilland Tuf finds and lays claim to a starship of almost unspeakable power - a planetary and genetic engineering vessel that can be used for good or evil. What lets it down after the first story is a drift towards slightly racist stereotyping as Tuf helps a culture that is overpopulating its planet. That the people of the planet are known with an 'ese' suffix makes you think of China or Japan and the descriptions of the people seem to follow this up. So that left me feeling uncomfortable. Then there's Tuf himself who is all-wise and able to second-guess anyone and unbelievably lucky and always right about everything. Which was plain annoying.

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson
This started well and then got stupid very, very fast. I liked the concept more than the story. The initial chapters of the eponymous old man's disappearance is funny and engaging. But then the flashbacks of his life begin and it all gets a bit ridiculous.

Moominland Midwinter, Tales from Moominvalley, and Comet in Moominland - Tove Jansson
Here's a three for one offer. I'd read Moominland Midwinter as a kid and really enjoyed it on a re-read. Moomintroll wakes up mid-hibernation and can't go back to sleep so leaves the family home and explores the alien wintery Moominvalley. It's quite fun and has some great characters, like the traghic and scary Groke who just wants to be warm, but extinguishes all warm things it sits on. It's the best Moomin book I've read and I've read most of them.

ales from Moominvalley was a bit hit and miss. There was one short story about the Moomin family taking in an orphan girl who had been rendered invisible through living with relatives who constantly belittled her and put her down. I quite liked that. Moominmama is the lead Moomin character, which doesn't happen often. There's also a story of when Moominpappa goes sailing with the enigmatic Hattifatteners, who terrified me as a child, but now seem a lot more comic.

Comet in Moominland was one of the first Moomin books and is pretty weak. For example, Moomintroll and Sniff travel to the observatory in the Lonely Mountains and back to Moominvalley but cross completely different topography each way - crossing a dried up sea bed on the way back of an ocean that wasn't mentioned on the way there.

One thing all the Moomin books have in common is that I can't shake the feeling I am reading an in-joke. The characters are obviously based on people Tove Jansson knew and no doubt her family and close friends wet themselves laughing when they read the stories, but for me that was frustrating because I felt excluded somehow.

A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness
This isn't really about a monster. It's about cancer and loss and the darkness of grief. It's ostensibly for kids. Someone who knows more than me about bereavement said it was one of the best things they had ever read about it.

The Red Pony - John Steinbeck
A depressing set of stories about not making promises you can't keep, and not setting your heart on something that is out of your control to have - like promising a boy a red pony of his own when there is every danger the pony will get sick and die, which of course, it does. Set on a ranch on California in the early part of the twentieth century, the description of living there feels authentic. I like Steinbeck's writing style, but this is a short book and as such sometimes feels a bit superficial even though it is dealing with deep themes. This particular edition came with an essay about the book as a preface, which I didn't read until afterwards. This proved a wise move as it was chock full of spoilers from the get go.

So, that was my year in fiction.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Interim bookey post - an extract from Burmese Days by George Orwell

The other reviews are coming soon. In the meantime, I've finished my first book for 2016: Burmese Days by George Orwell. It's a novel set in Burma during the British Empire. This bit amused me highly.

An hour passed, and a melancholy, earth-coloured Indian loitered up the drive, dressed in a loin-cloth and a salmon-pink pagri on which a washing-basket was balanced. He laid down his basket and salaamed to Flory. 
‘Who are you?’ 
‘Book-wallah, sahib.’ 
The book-wallah was an itinerant peddler of books who wandered from station to station throughout Upper Burma. His system of exchange was that for any book in his bundle you gave him four annas, and any other book. Not quite any book, however, for the book-wallah, though analphabetic, had learned to recognize and refuse a Bible. 
‘No, sahib,’ he would say plaintively, ‘no. This book (he would turn it over disapprovingly in his flat brown hands) this book with a black cover and gold letters—this one I cannot take. I know not how it is, but all sahibs are offering me this book, and none are taking it. What can it be that is in this black book? Some evil, undoubtedly.’

Monday, January 04, 2016

2015 in review: Books I read by Douglas Coupland

I've been logging (and rating) the books I read for a number of years. In the past I've listed the ones I've given a five star rating to (five being my arbitrary maximum), but I haven't listed my yearly reading for some reason. So, here starts a new tradition!

I've grouped these in rough categories rather than list them in order. I've read six Douglas Coupland's novels this year, so he has his own post to kick this off, for no other reason than it's my blog and I can do what I like.

Miss Wyoming
Susan Colgate is a reluctant beauty pageant winner who gets a chance to escape from her monstrous 'pageant mom' when her plane crashes and she can walk away. When she returns to public life a year later she attracts the attention of a film producer who went through a similar process by giving all his possessions away. It's an interesting study of how success ends up owning you. I wouldn't rate it as one of Coupland's best novels, but it was surprisingly upbeat and ended on a more hopeful note than most.

Life After God
This isn't really a novel; more a collection of sort-of fiction that kind of ties together. It was full of amazing quotes. I listed some here. One became the opening lines of a sermon in the summer.

Hey Nostradamus
This was devastatingly beautiful. It's really four stories, starting with the victim of a high school shooting who is secretly married and pregnant. Then it cuts to her secretly widowed husband several years later, then to his new partner, and finally to his religious fanatic father. I found it profound in its analysis of the way the pursuit of religious holiness ends up corrupting people and turning them into terrible human beings. This quote stood out: "There can be an archness, a meanness in the lives of the saved, an intolerance that can colour their view of the weak and the lost. It can make them hard when they ought to be listening, judgmental when they ought to be contrite." (p.28) I also used a quote from this book to begin my tribute to my Grandma at her funeral.

Worst. Person. Ever.
This was fantastically funny and vulgar. Raymond Gunt is a freelance TV cameraman and literally the worst person ever. He regards himself very differently, of course. Given the opportunity of a wonderful job in a tropical paradise he jumps at it, but then falls victim to a sequence of amusingly horrible events, many of them caused by his own terrible personality, which makes his suffering very enjoyable to read. Very different from Coupland's other novels, but brilliant.

All Families Are Psychotic
This is probably the maddest Coupland story that I've read, a real whirlwind of twists and shocks. A female astronaut is waiting to blast off on a shuttle mission, while her utterly dysfunctional family try to make their way to the launch site. The astronaut's mother is the most interesting character with a fairly nihilistic take on life. Throw in an eccentric European multi-millionaire, a cure for AIDS, and hijinks with crims and it remained unpredictable right to the end. Not my favourite of his novels, but pretty good.

The Gum Thief
Roger works in Staples. He's in his early 40s and the reason he works there is simple: his life has fallen apart. His much younger co-workers become the inspiration for him to start writing a novel. Weaved into the novel are several of his real-life experiences. One stand out thought was "Where does personality end and brain damage begin?" (I've thought that about a few people since reading this.) I really quite liked this book. It moved at a more relaxed pace than All Families Are Psychotic (thankfully) and made me think a bit. If I had one criticism, he has a character leave North America to go and visit Europe, which he's done in previous books. I know it's to make juxtapositions and take the characters out of their comfort zones, but does it always have to be Europe? And if it does have to be Europe, does it have to be London or Paris or wherever? Why can't it be Wales or another lost corner of the old world?

If you only read one of these... read Hey Nostradamus. Particularly if you are of a religious persuasion.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

The big 2015 Christmas Card Audit

Now in it's 4th year! (See 2012, 2013 and 2014)

No preamble. I'm just going to jump right in...

Total number of cards: 103 (up from 91 in 2014 and arresting a 3 year decline)
Hand-made / home-produced cards:  7 (same as 2014)
Cards with detachable tree decorations: 1 (also same as 2014)

Cards sold in aid of charity (or fundraising): 60 (up from 47 in 2014)
Total number of charities represented: 39 (It was 40 in 2014) 
Main charity represented: British Heart Foundation (9 cards)
The top performers: BHF (9), Diabetes UK (8), Traidcraft etc. (7), Macmillan (5), Leprosy Mission and Sue Ryder (both 4), Cancer Research UK and Fareshare (both 3).
Marks and Spencer cards: 7 (these promote the Woodland Trust but aren't 'charity' - one did also raise funds for good causes)
Notable newcomer: had not heard of Perennial, which looks after destitute horticulturalists (no really) or the Roald Dahl's Marvelous Children's Charity before
'Political' fund-raising cards: 0

Religious-themed cards: 45 (massive increase from 27 in 2014)
In a crossover category correlation, 31 of the religious cards were also raising money for charities.
Cards featuring the Nativity: 22
Christmas story 'characters':
Three kings: 11 (very popular compared to previous years)
The shepherds: 0 (no one liked the Shepherds this year)
The star of Bethlehem: 3
*Angels: 5 (new category)
There were also 2 cards with the cover message of "Joy to the World" and quite a few with lyrics from carols on.

Other themes 
'Peace': 1
Santa: 14 (up from 7 in 2014)
Penguins: 1
Various cartoon bears: 1 (Well down from the all time high of 12 in 2012)
Dogs in Santa Hats: 2! (There were 3 dog-centered cards in total, with 2 depicting a dog in control of some kind of transport)
Deer/reindeer: 1
Christmas decorations: 1 
Christmas trees: 5
*Christmas food: 2 (new category)
Robins: 3
Mistletoe: 1 
Winter scene/scenery: 7 (down from 14 in 2014, but even so this was most glitter-heavy category) 
Snowmen: 5
Owls: 1
It seems Like Santa was the big winner in the non-religious category. I guess if we were getting pedantic, we could say he is St Nicholas really and class him as religious. But then he's also a shill for Coca-Cola, so maybe not.

Cards that mention 'Christmas' on the front: 34 (almost the same as the 2014 total of 33). Only 2 of the 34 were religious themed. Cards seem to be either about the religious origins of the festival or explicitly say 'Christmas' but very rarely have both. I've noted before how this is kind of weird.

So, that's it. I'm going to scan some of my favourite Christmas cards and post them for your enjoyment later.