Tuesday, February 28, 2017

You can learn a lot about your neighbourhood by picking up its trash

One of the things I do occasionally - when the fates and free time at the weekend allow - is join the community litter-picks in Grangetown organised by Cardiff Rivers Group. This is far less boring than you might think and I've learned quite a bit from my experiences.

Archaeologists and anthropologists (and Wombles) can tell a lot about cultures from what they throw away and the discarded stuff on the streets is similarly illuminating. A couple of Saturdays ago I went along and was directed by Dave from the Rivers Group to go inside the Bowling Green and fish all the cans out of the hedge. Walking alongside the hedge to the entrance I thought Dave must be mad. There were no cans to be seen in the thick leafy healthy hedge. But inside it was a different story. The hedge was full of cans that had been shoved in from the street side and were hidden away.

I pulled out almost a full bag of cans, the oldest a faded Coke can in London 2012 Olympics livery, along with other rubbish and to crown it all (literally) the top of an artificial Christmas tree.

Coke cans are generally OK to pick up. The ones you have to watch are cans for disgusting energy drinks like Monster and Relentless. Those are always pretty much full when they are discarded, as if the teens buy them, take a swig and realise they taste the way a tramp's armpit would, and lob the mostly full can into the nearest bush. Or maybe they get a super burst of energy from the caffeinated swill and experience a full body spasm that causes them to launch the can reflexively away from their body as a survival instinct against drinking poison kicks in. Top tip: drain the can of it's nasty toxic contents before putting it in your bag.

Fag ends are even more annoying pieces of litter. They are fiddly to pick up with the litter-picking claws that Dave loans out from his truck, If you needed evidence that smoking is an antisocial vice, then it's all over our local park because it's not just the butts that smokers chuck. Fag packets and empty lighters get lobbed into the bushes, even though there is a bin right next to the bench where the smokers obviously puff away.

You don't get much evidence of other drug use, except for the nitrous capsules. These are metal or shiny plastic containers shaped a little bit like lighters with a screw-thread on one end. They never appear alone. If you find one under a bush, you'll find 10. Compared to the nitrous, the occasional empty baggie or rizla packet is a rarity.

And then there are the odd finds that also tell a story. The skeleton of a broken umbrella, turned inside out by the wind and chucked over the park fence by someone who has finally lost their temper with the thing and given it up as a bad job. (That was tricky to get in the bag without tearing open the sides on the spokes.) And then there are the untold and unknowable stories. What happened to the other half of the bed frame found lying in a kerbside gutter? How much money did that person spend on the lottery scratchcards now in the flowerbed, and did he win on any of them? Where is the rest of the Christmas tree?

That's my neighbourhood. A few kids do nitrous, but most can't finish their energy drinks. Smokers sit in the park and litter when they smoke. Some people put their hope in a lottery win, while others shove their Coke cans in the hedge. And Christmas is over when the decorations get dumped.

But the neighbourhood are also out on the sunny streets, and in the muddy borders of the park, picking all this crap up. And that's the Grangetown I love, because the kind of people who give up a couple of precious weekend hours to pick up rubbish and make the place a nicer space, are the kind of people you would want to spend a couple of hours with. There is an unselfish goodness at the heart of this activity that leaves me smiling for the rest of the weekend.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie - a semi-critical review (with some spoilers) from someone who loves Lego

The term AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego) is becoming more prominent, and certainly there seem to be more of us around now. Gone are the days when I would wonder round the Lego Shop in town looking sheepishly at all the lovely Lego sets and hoping no one thought I was a weirdo for not having kids in tow. Lego is now a semi-respectable hobby for grown ups too.

A lot of this is down to The Lego Movie that came out a couple of years ago and catapulted Lego back into the wider public eye. I thought The Lego Movie was a great film, and it would probably make it into my top ten animated films that even people who don't like cartoons would like. But it did that off a funny script, an interesting storyline, and the right number of in-jokes - not too many to make non-Lego fans feel like outsiders, but enough to make me smile to myself. Benny's broken helmet strap, the blink and you'll miss it references to Fabuland, that sort of thing.

Batman was one of the surprise supporting characters from The Lego Movie. He was a funny version of the well-known comic book and movie character. His comment about only building using black or very dark grey and his love of his self-penned thrash metal squeezed the pips of humour out of the Batman mythos, but all in the service of The Lego Movie's story.

As a result, I was looking forward to The Lego Batman Movie. But this is a case of where a supporting character can't really carry a whole movie. Cathy has told me of a conversation she had with our friend Tom about this, where they talked about the lower quality of the film Minions in comparison to Despicable Me where they first appeared. The Minions are funny little sideshow characters in Despicable Me. They struggled when carrying a whole film. And in this case Batman suffers the same fate.

The film is funny. There are moments that really amused me. The way they trawled the DC Comics archive for all the stupidest villains for a villain ensemble was funny. Calendar Man, anyone? Kite Man? The Eraser, who looks like a pencil? These are all real and really hilarious. There was a flashback sequence with tableaux from almost all the Batman films in franchise history, which was very cool. Alfred dons an Adam West era outfit and says he misses the sixties. At one point Batman warns Robin they are going to hit the bad guys so hard that words will appear in the air, and sure enough TV Batman style 'KA-POW' explodes into life when he punches a baddie. There's a can of shark repellent. All good gags. All made me laugh.

But there was still a hollowness to it. At the end of the day this was just a mickey-take of Batman - something that has been done before many, many times. We know the story of Batman. Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson. Barbara Gordon. These are all people we know. When Batman appeared in The Lego Movie, he was a new kind of Batman, He was Lego Batman. And we didn't know him. He was WildStyle's unreliable boyfriend and a bit of a douche. But he was a new character to learn about and relate to.

Batman in The Lego Batman Movie isn't new. He isn't even the Batman we knew from The Lego Movie. He's an amalgam of all the Batmen we have known before. Gotham City isn't new. It's just Gotham City made out of computer generated Lego. The Joker isn't new. We've seen him before and he was more interesting when he was played by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger or Jared Leto.

There is a break with tradition in that the Joker enlists some other villains trapped in the "Phantom Zone"; all of them villains with a Warner Bros licence. It is amusing watching Sauron as the lidless eye rampaging through Gotham, or the great white shark from Amity Beach recruited to the cause of evil.(But is 'Jaws' evil? That's a conundrum worth discussing. It's just a shark doing what sharks are reputed to do.) But we have seen unlikely team-ups before, in The Lego Movie, for example, with cameos from Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, and Gandalf and Dumbledore sitting next to each other.

Overall, what made The Lego Movie work was it was about Lego, but also about a whole lot more. The Lego Batman Movie isn't really about Lego. It's just using Lego as a medium to poke affectionate fun at a franchise that has been pastiched to death in recent years, and whose own 'serious' films are bordering on self-parody now. No amount of clever in-jokes, smartly done animation or witty lines delivered in perfect comic timing by Will Arnett could raise this film to the level of The Lego Movie.

It certainly doesn't suck, but The Lego Batman Movie needed more Lego and less Batman.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

How to score an own goal in ice hockey - the Cardiff Devils 'Shirt Off His Back' prize "draw"

I went to see the Cardiff Devils play last night. They drubbed the Coventry Blaze 8-0. The new ice arena was a sell out. The crowd got behind the team all night and thoroughly enjoyed a well-played, good-spirited contest with only 4 players sin binned all game.

However, the talk on Twitter after a comprehensive eight goal shut out victory was all about something completely incidental to the game - the much-hyped 'Shirt Off His Back' promotion, which last night was giving away all 23 squad shirts. That's 23 chances to win, they said.

At the end of the game the winning numbers were displayed on the big screen.

Here's a close up. See if you spot anything.

How about some sequences?

Yes, that's right. The first five numbers were in sequence. Then there were another four winning tickets in sequence. Given that people tend to buy tickets in bulk (because there is a discount) it seemed very likely that one or two people were winning multiple shirts. There were some boos and I heard one guy shouting "Fix". As we left, there were people talking about the draw being dodgy.

I tweeted about my "scepticism" about the draw and soon discovered there were a lot of angry tweets from other fans about it. Words like "scam", "swindle", "cheats" and "fix" were being used. Rumours started that corporate sponsors had been guaranteed shirts, or that people connected with the club won, and that someone did indeed win five jerseys and had sold one online for £2,000 within a couple of hours. Regardless of whether the rumours were in any way true, in this environment of fake news, you could see people would be willing to believe them. The Devils official account meanwhile just retweeted happy tweets about the victory and said nothing in response to the angry comments.

This is a huge PR own goal. Reading the tweets, the people who are most annoyed about this are the really loyal fans. I admit I'm a part-timer. This was only the second game I've been to this season. But when people who have chosen to use the club's logo as their avatar or a hockey related picture to represent themselves are blisteringly critical of the club then the damage is really done.

To give you a flavour of the anger, here are some of the tweets I read last night (quoted anonymously):

“@cardiffdevils great game but utter shambles and scam for the SOHB draw...”

“Any chance of a refund? @cardiffdevils this is total garbage. Who shuffled this? Stevie wonder.”

“@cardiffdevils sohb rip off swindle! Loads in a line what draw is that! 9k potential numbers.. The great swindle”

“@cardiffdevils you should be utterly ashamed of your selves. SOHB was a fix. Total loss of respect for the club!”

Anger soon spilled over into suspicions and accusations:

“I'm no statistician but this many consecutive numbers isn't far off the first 5 lottery numbers being 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5.”

“the problem is they are more than a little fixed” 

“How much did some corporate sponsor have to pay @cardiffdevils today to guarantee 5 Jerseys in the Sohb draw? #randommyass #fix”

“and the guy who won 5 just sold the Kearney shirt for 2k”

Shirt Off His Back and the other draws the Devils operate are a way for the club to make some extra money. I don't know how important an income stream it is to them, but I hope they aren't relying on it, given the reactions of some fans:

“There will be a lot of people refusing to pay again, including us! I actually feel for whoever won 5, they've got to feel bad.”

“first time in months I bought thinking better odds!  It's a lot cheaper to buy a jersey than the ticket money I spent weekly”

“Think a statement needs to be made regarding that SOHB draw tonight @cardiffdevils you will lose a lot of buyers after that”

And for some people, it confirmed their feelings of mistrust about the draws and their decisions not to take part:

“I never buy SOHB and this is why. Not down to luck it's down the highest bidder. We are a money grabbing club now”

“And it seems I made the right decision a couple of months ago to stop buying SOHB (and 50/50) tickets.”

There were some suggestions about how the Devils could regain the trust of fans after this debacle.

“SOHB raffle would have been so good if each player had drawn their own number live on the ice at end of the game. #justsaying”

 “the draw should be on ice after chuck a puck no cheats then”

I will still go to the occasional game. It's a fun evening out and I enjoy watching ice hockey. But as quite a few other people have said, I am very unlikely to bother with these draws again. I have no problem with not winning draws that are drawn openly and fairly. But if it feels like there is no chance of winning, then I've got better things to waste my money on.

This isn't the worst PR disaster of all time and could quite easily be fixed. The club should acknowledge the anger and that the draw could have been done differently and better. There should be a commitment to greater openness and transparency for all future draws.

The bottom line is this is about reputation. Do the Devils want to be known as a club that organises a prize draw so incompetently it kills off its revenue streams by alienating its fans? The club needs to do something to rebuild trust with its supporters.