Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Chewbacca, the overlooked hero of the Star Wars films

Cathy has complained that my review of The Last Jedi didn't mention Chewbacca once. Chewie is one of her favourite characters, and although this sounds insulting, she likes it when I remark on the comparisons between them. Like Cathy, Chewie is loyal, dependable, smart, isn't overly talkative, and is very strong.

Trading card pose!

Sadly, Chewie is also frequently overlooked. It's a famous running gag that there is no medal for the wookiee at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope. Surely with all the different edits that have happened to that poor, oft-butchered film, they could have put in a sequence where a medal is dropped round his neck and then CGI-d onto him when he says 'RRRRAAAAWWWRRRR' at the end. (Trivia quiz answer - he is the last character to speak in A New Hope.)

Then in The Force Awakens, he sees his long-time buddy / boss / best friend killed in front of him, but when the Millennium Falcon lands back at the resistance base, Princess Leia, who had hugged him earlier as if they were besties, ignores him and hugs Rey instead. Rey, who she has hardly heard anything about, much less never met. Surely, Chewie deserved the hug more. Cathy was sort of outraged about how he was snubbed here. Although I have suggested that maybe Chewie was concerned about the grievously injured Finn at the time. I'm sure once Finn was in sick bay, Chewie would have got the hug he needed, probably off-screen, because he's a proud wookiee and doesn't want people to see him grieving. (Cathy isn't buying any of my explanations, by the way.)

So, does Chewie deserve more respect from the Star Wars writers? I think so. Chronologically we first see him in Episode III, fighting to protect his home world of Kashyyyk. He is part of Yoda's honour guard, helping the old jedi survive Order 66. In A New Hope, he sets up the deal with Obi Wan to get him and Luke passage to Alderaan. In Empire, Han entrusts Leia to him. In Return of the Jedi, he wears shackles to give Leia a reason to enter Jabba the Hutt's court in a rescue attempt to spring Han.

Throughout the movies, we see him as Han's conscience. In A New Hope, Han gruffly tells Chewie that he knows what he's doing as he loads the rebel money onto the Falcon. Clearly Chewie wants them to stick around and help the attack on the Death Star. In The Force Awakens, he gives away Han's bluffing when Han is trying to lie his way out of a showdown with the gangs he has taken money from.

"I know what I'm doing!"

He's not just Han's conscience though. He is loyal to a fault. When Han starts running down a Death Star corridor after a squad of stormtroopers, he doesn't hesitate and follows them. In the Special Edition of A New Hope, Han finds Jabba and various goons at his ship (including Boba Fett on some sort of retainer), and Chewie is there and ready to back him up. Chewie is the pretend captive when Luke and Han go looking for the Princess. He follows Han out of the Falcon to look for mynocks. As I mentioned he ends up in Jabba's dungeon, where he holds onto Han like a protective mother when the two are reunited. There's no question he's going to Endor even though Han hasn't volunteered him and he's clearly annoyed that Han wanted to protect him. And so on, and so forth. No wonder he ends up hunting rathtars.

And he does have key parts to play in The Last Jedi. First he gets Luke's attention by kicking in the door of his hut. That's played for laughs in the film, but lets not overlook his commitment to supporting Rey after Han's death - even to the point of kicking in the door of the last known jedi master at the risk of seriously angering him. Then he shows off some badass piloting skills to evade the First Order TIE fighters over Crait and play as much a role in saving the last few sparks of the Resistance as Rey did. And he even managed to do that with a ship that seems to have become infested with porgs that get in the way at inconvenient moments. It's not the first time he has piloted the Falcon at key moments. He was the wookiee ex machina who saved Rey and Finn as Starkiller Base shattered around them at the end of Episode VII. (He really should have got that hug!)

I think the case is made for Chewie being the overlooked hero. Literally, on-screen in A New Hope and The Force Awakens, and generally in the trilogy. With a Han Solo spin off movie due this summer, we can only hope that Chewie gets to play a major role.

Monday, January 15, 2018

End of an era: after 14 years I have closed down my freelance theology website

You may have come here as a redirect from www.freelancetheology.com - don't panic! That was meant to happen.

In January 2004 I launched a Typepad site (remember Typepad? No? Oh well) which I called 'freelance theology'. The idea was that people could submit a question and get an answer from a 'real, live theologian' (i.e. me), which would be non-partisan and give all the different angles on the subject.

The Typepad venture was quite successful. In 2006, with a lot of help from my friend Ian,  it was transferred to a Wordpress blog. Another friend, Matt, designed my logo, with a heavenly cloud one end and a hellish flame the other. The F had a halo. The G had horns and a devil tail. The idea was that somewhere between heaven and hell was freelance theology. After a couple of years, I transferred the web hosting to Dave, who has been a great help with technical stuff ever since.

Freelance theology got me into some interesting things. I wrote a chapter for a book about Jesus. I had a regular interview slot with Paul Hammond on UCB radio and even went to their lovely studios a couple of times as their live Friday morning guest. If you are one of the people who read my freelance theology posts, who commented, who asked a question, then thank you. Thank you for being part of it. I appreciate it.

The site has been on hiatus since November 2016 and I didn't post at all last year. I had been thinking for a while whether it was time to wind up the project and with the web hosting renewal bill coming in, I have decided it is time to call it quits. In 14 years I answered 222 questions, and I apologise to the handful of people who had questions pending, which I won't be answering now.

It has been a wrench to close it down. I was 'Jon the freelance theologian' for a long time, but I don't really want to be him any more. I started with lofty aims - possibly even pretentious, arrogant aims - of providing impartial knowledge, sharing all the sides of arguments that are often much more complex than people realise. I still think there is a place for that on the web. I just don't think I am the person to do it any more.

It got hard to be impartial. Being blunt, there is so much in the modern Christian subculture that is either toxic or just plain stupid, I found it really hard not to be sarcastic and / or damning. I was asked a few questions that left me rolling my eyes. And I started to drift away from answering questions and posting excerpts from talks, or comments about other things I saw in church life. Those weren't what freelance theology was about. I could feel the drift and I didn't like it, even though it was my website and my rules.

Rather than let mission-creep overtake the site, I decided it was just time to bring it to a halt. I remember a conversation I had years ago with my dad about church-related activities and he said that people found it easy to start things, but hard to stop them. It is hard to stop. But it is the right thing to do and now is the right time.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

My big 2017 film review

I didn't manage the target Cathy set for me of watching 52 new films in 2017. But I did see 41, which isn't bad. Back in February I noted the ones I'd seen so far. I was going to do this regularly throughout the year, but, um, well, anyway...

I've decided to keep this review to just films that I saw on cinema release in 2017. I've included short summaries giving my verdict on the film.

*January*  - snapshot summaries here
A Monster Calls

The Lego Batman Movie - read my long review here

Beauty & the Beast
Probably the most unnecessary remake in cinematic history, which is saying something. Emma Watson spent most of her time having to react to empty air where the CGI characters would be and it really showed she's not that great an actor. The additions to the cartoon, both songs and narrative, weren't much cop either.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A sequel to my favourite film of recent years that I liked even better than the original. I got emotional at the end. Cracking soundtrack too. My film of the year, and probably of several years. I saw it twice in the cinema and then bought the Blu-ray when it came out. And the soundtrack. And a ton of merchandise. And the Lego sets. I collect Rocket Raccoons and Cathy collects Groots. That says a lot about us really. (It also has a very interesting religious angle, which I blogged about.)

Alien Covenant
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGGHH! This film is so stupid it hurt me. I actually felt rage when I thought about it afterwards. Every STUPID thing the STUPID people did in STUPID Prometheus they went and did again! Walking out on the surface of a planet without a protective suit. Trusting the CLEARLY EVIL ROBOT so much you stick your face up close next to an alien pod-egg, even though you've just seen your crew-mate's decapitated head floating in a fountain. I mean, come on! How dull are you? Recycling every twist you can imagine from previous films and adding such an obvious one I was literally mouthing 'Please, no, don't do that' because it was so obvious.

Possibly contentious opinion: The best thing that happened to Star Wars is that is got taken away from George Lucas. Someone needs to do the same thing with Ridley Scott and Alien.

Wonder Woman
This film had flaws. I guessed who the baddy was going to be, because by now I have seen so many superhero films it's always going to be that guy who is just too helpful to the heroes. But Gal Gadot was a revelation. The scene where she went over the top of the trench into a hail of bullets and powered through inspired me. So, all in all, I thought this was great despite the flaws.

Despicable Me 3
Someone out there might still find minions amusing. Pretty sure even little kids are sick of this franchise now. It would make a good primer about how a movie can get totally lost through having too many sub-plots.

Cars 3
I would nominate Cars 2 as the worst Pixar sequel by miles. But this was great - the sequel Cars should have had. We took my Niece (6) and Nephew (4) to see it for Nephew's first trip to the cinema. Even they recognised it was a far superior film to Cars 2, even if I'm not sure they fully grasped the mature storyline of growing old and being replaced by the next generation coming through.

Spider-Man Homecoming
This was pretty good overall. It had a lot of humour and Spider-man is a dorky schoolkid again. Marisa Tomei is a brilliant comedic actor and was a refreshing change as Aunt May. Michael Keaton as a villain - what's not to love? I've seen 5 big screen Spider-man films now, and I think this one is probably the best. And it fits back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which works for me.

This was very powerful, with a plot timing device I only got about halfway through. I'm very glad I saw it in the cinema because the aerial combat scenes needed to be on a big screen. I know this sounds daft but the sky is big and the sense of losing sight of a plane and not knowing where it will be coming from next was very well captured. The sense of desperation, of trying to escape, and repeated failures, ratcheted up the tension. It got to me and most of the rest of the audience, judging by how we all sat there slightly stunned afterwards.

Blade Runner 2049
My comment about Ridley Scott and Alien also applies to Blade Runner. Visually it was very arresting and evocative of the first film. There was too much gratuitous nudity and the plot really didn't bear much scrutiny. I would make a case that this film settles the argument and Deckard isn't a replicant. Which I know is controversial, but if you follow the logic through, he can't be.

The Lego Ninjago Movie
Two Lego movies in a year. If you want to see the Law of Diminishing Returns in action, here it is. This was some way off The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie. It was still much funnier than Sing or Despicable Me 3 though.

Thor: Ragnarok
My third Marvel Comics Universe film of the year and a real departure for Thor films, which tend to be a bit slow and depressing. This was gaudy and colourful, so much so it felt a little bit like a rip off of Guardians of the Galaxy. I laughed a lot, particularly at the new character, Korg, who introduced Thor to the weird world he ended up on. Cate Blanchett was suitably villainous as Hela, but was under-used. Anthony Hopkins phoned in his part as Odin for the third time in three films. But overall I enjoyed it a lot and it's easily the best of the Thor films.

Loving Vincent
This was an oddball one - an animated retelling of the tragic death of Vincent Van Gogh, with the twist that each cel of the animation was painted in the style of Van Gogh's art. I was intrigued by the concept, which worked some of the time, and learned quite a bit from the story. Some of the voices didn't work for me, especially Chris O'Dowd's indomitable Irish accent that felt very out of place. If you are a fan of animation, quirky films, or art, then this might interest you.

Justice League
Yay, Gal Gadot is back. This was my first real encounter with Batfleck. He didn't really do it for me. As a 'getting the team together' movie, it works better than most. Superman is still a superhero I don't care about. It was supposed to be a big secret he was in this film, but then I saw the toy sets in the supermarkets and noticed the S logo was included in the poster. Here's a tip, film-makers, if you want to hide Superman's presence in your movie, don't put his logo on the poster! In my opinion, DC is a long way off Marvel in terms of films that I want to see. Suicide Squad was the worst film I saw in 2016. The other Superman and Batman films up to this one have looked just awful. This didn't really win me over but I might give Justice League 2 a look when it rolls around.

The Last Jedi
I saw this twice before the year end. I thought it was great and have posted a long review about it already.

In summary
I watched a lot of superhero films this year, which is a bit embarrassing, but, hey, I go to the cinema to be entertained. Some quick 'awards':

Best film: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Best animation: Cars 3

Worst film: Alien Covenant, although Beauty & the Beast ran it a close second.

Most unexpected character appearance: Sauron in The Lego Batman Movie

Biggest twist: What happened to Snoke (trying not to reveal a spoiler there)

Best visual moment: the speeders carving up plumes of red dust across a white salt field in the battle of Crait, closely followed by Wonder Woman deflecting machine gun fire as she walks through no man's land

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Last Jedi - stepping out from the shadows cast by the world's biggest franchise?

This post contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for The Last Jedi. Don't read past this picture of the movie poster unless you have seen the film or don't care about spoilers.

Still here, OK, then.

A review in one sentence: Well, that repeatedly went in a different direction than I expected.

Here are six things that struck me about the film.

1) Rey is a nobody, and wow, was that dark!
After The Force Awakens, there were lots of discussions about Rey's provenance. Was she related to the Skywalkers? How would she link in with the rest of the known universe? That tends to be the (much mocked) trope in Star Wars films.

But, no, she is a nobody from nowhere. And how bleak is this - her alcoholic parents sold her for drinking money to the junk dealer Unku Plutt. It's interesting that in The Force Awakens, Finn talks about being taken as a child and indoctrinated into the First Order as a child soldier. My mum commented on that at this time. But this is as bad a situation in terms of mistreating children.

Abandonment and child slavery? The Galaxy Far Far Away (GFFA) is a messed up place. But, equally, this is refreshingly different for a Star Wars character.

2) They killed off the 'big bad' in the second act
I don't really care about Supreme Leader Snoke. I thought he was annoying and a ridiculous baddie, really. Like so many evil characters he seemed to prefer to send his minions to do his bidding for him rather than sort things out himself. So I wasn't too upset when he got sliced and diced by Kylo Ren.

I was surprised though, that it happened when it did. Normally it's the sort of thing saved for a third act showdown, but no, Snoke just got offed and then afterwards we had an epic fight scene, with Rey and Ren fighting back to back against Snoke's elite guards.

3) War profiteering is the real evil in the galaxy
Whoah, Star Wars just got relevant. I really wasn't expecting this theme to ever come up. Star Wars has always been about light versus dark, good versus evil, heroes and villains. But first with Rogue One, and now with this film, the GFFA is starting to become more nuanced. There are grey areas.

The scene in Canto Bight is quite stunning in its own way. Finn sees the glitz and is mesmerised by it. Rose sees through the glitz to the brutality that shapes the entertainment for the wealthy gamblers. Fascism always creates an elite and it is easy to be bedazzled by it. In the first Star Wars film, it was a grubby smuggler's township that was a hive of scum and villainy. In the Last Jedi, the scum have floated to the top by making money off the suffering of others. That's an astonishing message condemning the military industrial complex for a mainstream film to be putting out there.

4) The scoundrel stays a scoundrel 
Star Wars has always been about redemptive arcs. Han Solo in A New Hope, Lando in Empire Strikes Back, and, of course, Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Arguably the prequels lacked this redemptive theme, which is one reason why they fail to connect emotionally. In The Force Awakens, we see Finn going through his own redemption as he turns his back on the First Order, and that's perhaps one of the reasons it felt like the films were back on track in Episode VII.

So when Finn and Rose meet a thief and hacker in a prison cell, and promise him paid work, we all know how this will turn out. The criminal will have a change of heart and join the rebellion because it's the right thing to do.

Except he doesn't. There is no redemptive story arc for him. He sells out Finn and Rose, and the fleeing remnant of the Resistance to save his own skin. He kind of apologises for it, but doesn't seem very sincere. He doesn't fly back in to save the day like Han Solo. He takes the money and he walks away.

5) The hotshot pilot is a bit of a dick
Poe is a poor leader. He is willing to sacrifice the lives of people around him to achieve an aim. He is reprimanded and demoted by Leia. He doesn't trust the decisions of the leadership and tries to take over the ship instead, trusting in his own gut instincts to fight, rather than to protect the people he should be trying to protect. He inadvertently alerts the code slicer that Finn and Rose have recruited to Admiral Holdo's plan, which gives the slicer a bargaining chip to use when captured. When he cuts a deal the First Order destroy at least 12 unarmed transport ships full of Resistance crew and soldiers as they flee towards Crait. (And, yes, I counted them as they got blown up.) All those people died because of him.

The message here if that it's not enough to be heroic. People die as a result.

Luke Skywalker, of course, was a hotshot pilot. Jumping into a vacant X-Wing seat he totalled the Death Star. In this film, he is also shown to be a failure as a leader. His hubris in establishing a new Jedi Temple facilitated Ben Solo's growth as a Force user, and then his panic at Ben's seduction by the dark side cemented Ben's transformation into Kylo Ren. One of the most interesting parallels in this film is between Poe and Luke - both are legendary heroes, but prideful. Both are hotshot pilots and they end up getting the people around them killed.

6) A background person becomes more than background
Rose isn't anyone special. A tech working "behind pipes all day". She doesn't get whisked into top-ranking briefing rooms or given super top secret missions. She is stunned to be talking to a real life Resistance hero when she first meets Finn.

I think this is probably the first time a committed member of the movement actually steps out of the shadows into the role of hero. If you look at almost every other rebel character, they start out as established leaders (Leia, Poe), or start their story outside the Rebellion but become heroes through great feats of daring do (Luke, Han, Lando, Finn, Rey). Rose is unique - not new to the Rebellion; not a noteworthy person.

Of course, the film still just trashes numerous Resistance troops, from the crews of the doomed bomber squadron at the start of the film, through to the trenches full of troopers outside the mine in Crait. The resistance is whittled down to just a dozen or so survivors huddled in the Millennium Falcon, their only serviceable ship. The death toll in this film is massive.

To sum up
In conclusion, then is seems the directorial team took to heart Kylo Ren's advice to Rey: "Let go of the past. Destroy it if you have to. So you can become the person you were meant to be." They certainly trashed the past. The Jedi failed. Luke Skywalker went from being a legendary hero to a devastated hermit, haunted by what he had unleashed in Kylo Ren, and cut off from the Force. The script literally left you thinking that everything about the Jedi had been left to burn.

The film has garnered some praise and some hate. My feeling is that the directors made a lot of brave choices to take the film in several different directions, upsetting several established tropes from the series so far. It is incredibly hard to imagine a Star Wars film that is revolutionary. Rogue One tried but to me, was a huge disappointment in that regard.

And just to round this post off, here is my round up of random opinions. Feel free to disagree.

Best character: I do still really like Rey.

Best hairstyle: Vice-Admiral Holdo, by several parsecs.

Most annoying character: I'll give this to Poe. He's a tool for most of the film.

Most under-used character: Captain Phasma. Although, yet again, the pre-release merchandise led us to believe some new characters would play more of a role than they ended up doing. The First Order black rolly ball droid had about 30 seconds of screen time, and yet is a pop vinyl figure. (It's no Morroff or Pau from Rogue One, though.)

Funniest bit: Probably Poe winding up General Hux right at the start. Although Rey 'reaching out' to feel the force in Luke's first lesson was very funny too.

Best line: Finn's "Rebel scum!" response to Captain Phasma. Finn also had a great line when the TIE Fighters all peeled off to chase the Falcon: "Oh, yeah, they hate that ship!"

Most jarring line: "Page-turners, they were not." It was very funny but the phrase 'page-turners' didn't seem very Star Wars-y. (But then they were actually books, which is interesting given the idea that people in the Star Wars universe are functionally illiterate.)

Most quotable bit of Star Wars wisdom: Rose, saying "We don't win by fighting what we hate. We win by saving what we love."

Biggest surprise: Ghost Yoda turning up.

Daftest bit: Leia force-guiding herself through the vacuum of space.

Biggest disappointment: They killed off Admiral Ackbar! I was genuinely gutted by this. He was one of my favourite characters as a kid, and probably my favourite of the original Star Wars figures that I had. And he dies ignominiously along with the entire bridge crew, which is pretty much an off-screen death.

Weirdest plot turn: Pretty much everything with the casino at Canto Bight, including the escape on the racing animals.

Thing I'm most relieved to report: The porgs were stupid, but bearable in small doses. And they were in very small doses.

Some more Star Wars posts:
How Rogue One almost killed off my love of Star Wars
What I liked about The Force Awakens
What Return of the Jedi means to me

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Highlights of 2017: Seeing Midnight Oil again, 23 years on

I saw Midnight Oil play at the Greenbelt Festival in 1994. My dad wanted to go to Greenbelt, a Christian arts festival, to see what it was like. I was massively into Midnight Oil so jumped at the opportunity. I liked their meaningful politically-informed lyrics. They had some good tunes. They were Australian and that meant they were a bit different, but unlike Australian pop stars they sang about Australian issues and didn't seem to be trying to be generically likeable everywhere.

I don't remember much from that gig. I remember they had borrowed a didgeridoo player who had an artificial hand. And I remember thinking they were great.

And then life happened. They played a couple of rare gigs in London at the end of the 90s, but I didn't have the money or the wherewithal to get there. It was hard to find out what was happening with the band, pre-Internet. They weren't cool enough to get featured in NME or Melody Maker. Then the band went on hiatus. Peter Garrett, the lead singer, went into politics, getting elected to the Australian Senate and ending up as Minister for the Environment.

So, that was that, I thought. I'd seen them play live once and considered myself lucky. Other bands have come and gone who I never got to see. And if I'm honest, my musical tastes had changed. I had become slightly obsessed with the Tragically Hip, who I got into because they collaborated on a protest song with Midnight Oil back in the mid-90s. While it's sad to think you'll never see a revered band again, I kind of made my peace with it.

And then Cathy told me they had reformed and were touring again. I was very excited. Their only UK gig was in London, at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith. Cathy bought the tickets. She also found a bargain price for the Novotel the other side of the Hammersmith flyover from the venue, and here we were, 23 years after I first saw them, off to see Midnight Oil.

The audience was mainly Australians, at least sitting around us. I was surprised when the set-list kicked off with Beds are Burning, their only real worldwide hit. They continued to play all the tracks off their biggest album, Diesel and Dust, in order, but didn't play the last track on the album, Gunbarrel Highway, which is my favourite one. So that was a tiny bit disappointing. They then kicked into a setlist of other songs, but nothing from later than Earth and Sun and Moon, the album they released in 1993. Weirdly, I could have been watching them back at Greenbelt all those years ago.

So, the big question: were they any good? Well, yeah. A bit rusty perhaps. Peter Garrett has slowed down a bit and doesn't do his trademark stuttering dance as much. He tried though, bless him.

And they made some odd choices. I'm not sure why they played Diesel and Dust like that. Maybe it's what the punters want. They also decided to do Koscziusko, one of their most driving rock songs, as an acoustic version to start with, which didn't really work and sucked all the power out of the song. They included some of the real oldies, like Stand in Line, and I really liked the way they sang Now or Never Land, but that's just a beautiful song of hope that has become ever more timely.

I was left with that strange sense of feeling really happy to have seen a band play who I never thought I would see again (and get the chance to buy two t-shirts!) and feeling wistful about the missed opportunities. Obviously, it's one of my highlights of the year, but it could have been even better than it was.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Highlights of 2017: Discovering Lundy Island

Back in May, Cathy and I had a week's holiday in North Devon. We stayed in a converted piggery - Cathy found it in the holiday brochure, told me it was the Old Piggery then read out the list of features. My response: "You had me at 'piggery'."

Not bad for a piggery
On the Thursday we took a boat from Bideford to Lundy. I'd heard about Lundy but didn't know much about it at all. I knew they had their own stamps as a money-making thing. And birds. And not much else.

The boat was fairly full. we had a seal on the rocks to greet us as we arrived. It's quite a hike up from the beach, but the island is basically a moor stuck in the middle of the sea.

But it is breathtaking. Yes, there were lots of birds, but they were a long way down the cliffs and inconveniently, puffins are really small! But we did just about see them flitting about.

One of the few buildings on the island is the lighthouse.

There is also a shop and a pub, and accommodation. But we weren't planning to stay the night and had to leg it back to catch the boat. We did have time to stop and post some post cards.

As we left a pod of dolphins kept pace with our boat for a few minutes, rounding off a magical day out. As you can see from the photos it was a blisteringly sunny day, although with a wind chill at times. However, coming home we seemed to cross a portal back into the rainy mainland world.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A dozen Christmas Cards from the ACCA '17

There seems to be some competition among people who send us Christmas cards as to who gets their card featured on the blog. One or two people have asked me about it. So, in the spirit of competition, I've picked 12 out of the 90 we received to showcase in this year's ACCA supplementary post.

First up, as regular ACCA readers will know, I audit the number of religious and secular themed cards that we get. Most of the religious ones this year were a bit dull, but I really liked this one produced by Oxfam. I'm a little concerned about the blonde Aryan baby Jesus, but overall it's a really nice card.

I like robins in real life and as a Christmas card theme. This card also had glitter, which is a card feature I started counting this year for the first time.

It's not quite a robin, but I thought this was a charming Christmas cockatoo, on the card from my Australian cousin, Trefor.

The other birds to feature heavily on Christmas cards are, of course, penguins. We have had a lot of penguin cards over the years and they did well as a theme this year. Cathy really liked the funky penguins on this card, and I have to agree with her.

But how about penguins commandeering a bus to go Christmas shopping? Sounds like an awesome concept, doesn't it? I really liked it.

Several schools produce Christmas cards as a fundraising scheme, featuring artwork from kids. My friend Sarah's daughter drew this tree, which was also the only card to wish us Happy Christmas in Welsh. Christmas trees were one of the most popular themes.

Snowmen are also a well-performing theme, as you would perhaps expect. I liked this card from my sort-of-cousin, Sue, as she keeps chickens and so the card was very apt.

One of the themes that again was sadly lacking was 'dogs in Santa hats'. However, like last year, we had a card with behatted sheep to make up for it. Also featuring a pun!

'Christmas food' is an odd category and I've thought about dropping it. However, last year we had the really great puddings card and this year a cheery, cheeky walnut.

Keeping on the theme of nuts, Cathy gave me a card covered in squirrels and with a pun(!) on it. I love puns.

These days, it's not the festive season without the release of a Star Wars film. I liked this Star Wars theme Christmas jumper mash up card.

But I have saved the best until last. The moment I opened this card, I knew it was going to be my favourite card of the year. Surprisingly, it also got counted in the religious side of the audit. It's one of the very few cards to actually mention Jesus, and it was sent to us by Cathy's cousin Adam and his wife, Bonny. (I'm not sure if naming them is giving credit or blame, to be honest.)

So, here you go... click on it to see it in all it's glory.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The big Annual Christmas Card Audit 2017

Welcome to the ACCA for 2017! (I've started calling it the ACCA. I've done this for 6 years now so it feels fairly safe to say it's annual.)

I like the sentiment

I'm just going to crack on with the figures and make comments as I go along. Links to previous years are at the end of the post. New or altered categories are asterisked.

Total number of cards: 90 (a new record low, although we only had 91 in 2016)

Hand-made / home-produced cards: 7 (same number for the fourth year in a row)
Cards with embellishments (bits stuck on): 3
Unusually shaped cards: 3
*Cards with glitter: 17

Cards sold in aid of charity (or fundraising): 57 (2 up from 2016)
Total number of charities represented: 41 (down from 48 in 2016)
Most popular charity represented: Macmillan had 6, as did the Traidcraft / SCIAF / CAFOD / Christian Aid combination. British Heart Foundation had 5. Children in Need and the Phoenix International Charity both had 4.

Religious themes
Religious-themed cards: 31 (3 down from 2016)
Cards featuring the Nativity: 16
Christmas story 'characters':
Three kings: 6 (still much more popular than the shepherds)
The shepherds: 3 (staging a bit of a comeback after 1 card in 2016 and 0 in 2015)
The star of Bethlehem: 2
Angels: 0
"Joy to the World": 0
'Cartoony' religious (various themes): 0 - clearly 2017 was a much more serious religious year than 2016.

Other themes
Santa: 5 (still a long way down from 14 in 2015)
Penguins: 3 (drop from 5 in 2016)
Various cartoon bears: 1 (this seems to be seriously decreasing after the all time high of 12 in the first ACCA in 2012)
Deer/reindeer: 5 (increase)
Christmas decorations: 5 (the same)
Christmas trees: 10 (increase)
Christmas food: 1 (the same)
Robins: 3 (increase)
Donkeys: 1 (decrease)
Sheep: 1 (the same)
Winter scene/scenery: 2 (a big drop from 8 in 2016)
Snowmen: 6 (decrease)
Licensed characters: 3 (stayed the same)

Messages (front of card only)
Cards that mention 'Christmas' on the front: 37. Only 5 of them were religious themed. I've mentioned before how religious cards don't really use the word Christmas. It's quite odd.
"Seasons Greetings": 1
"Winter Wishes": 1
"Let it Snow": 0
"Ho Ho Ho": 0
Mentions "Jesus": 3
*Bible verse: 3 (only counting them if the verse is on the front of the card)

Non-scoring themes (from previous audits): 'Political' fund-raising cards; Dogs in Santa Hats; Mistletoe; Owls; Peace

Previous years:
2015 plus senders analysis and Bible verse breakdown
2016 plus favourite cards
New for 2017: Christmas carol audit

Monday, January 01, 2018

Highlights of 2017: Graduating with a MSc

I feel a bit embarrassed to be writing about graduating with a MSc in Business Psychology, but if I can be indulged as I pat myself on the back for a short post, I'd be grateful.

Red sash for science

2017 saw the culmination of my post-graduate degree that I began back in 2014. By the time it had finished the course had moved campus, I had learned a lot about organisational psychology, and I had changed jobs, partly because of a classroom exercise.

The first term was a basic introduction to key concepts like motivation, job satisfaction and burn out, which were three themes that really interested me. We did the burn out quiz and I scored very highly compared to other people on the course. I remember looking at the results and thinking, 'I need to change jobs'. Nine months later I had started a new role, leaving behind a job I realise now I had stagnated in.

At the start of the second term, I received a significant diagnosis, which resulted in being put on medication that had significant effects on my ability to concentrate. Fortunately I was off those particular drugs by the April. I just about scraped through that module, recording just above the 40% cut off. But, hey, a pass is a pass.

For the second year our lessons moved from the Caerleon campus to Trefforest. This was better for me in terms of travel, although not for my class colleagues, who were all travelling from Bristol. At some point during this year we were all asked if we were willing to be photographed for the course prospectus. We all agreed and I really liked my photos. However, I clearly wasn't sexy enough to be the face of Business Psychology in future years.

In the second year, we did the course I found most interesting - External Communications. This focused on cognitive psychology and examining how we are manipulated into buying things, showing brand loyalty, and so on. I wrote an essay about the psychological techniques the Lego company use to boost sales. They use a lot, although I can't say for sure that they do it knowingly. I saw great correlation between marketing techniques I'd read or heard from various gurus and psychological theory, and the whole subject really engaged me. I blogged about Neuromarketing at the time.

The Leadership module didn't engage me. Partly because the lecturer was a few weeks away from quitting the university to go and work for a rival. The subject matter felt very much like a run of the mill business theory course. And in the first week the lecturer started talking about how all the problems in the NHS were down to poor leadership. I thought this was hilariously simplistic and told her so. She told me I should read the Francis Report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal, and didn't seem to hear me when I said that I had written a white paper partly in response to the Francis Report.

I've been very lucky to have a job where I have met a number of NHS CEOs, not to mention Medical Directors, Nursing Directors, executive directors of all shapes and sizes. Generally I think they are all very smart, committed, people who really give a damn about doing a good job and somehow keeping the NHS limping along. The truth is, though, NHS organisations are unleadable. They are too big, too riven by competing interests, too underfunded and over-demanded, too entrenched in delivery mechanisms that were always a compromise, and are basically organisational oil tankers that need turning circles the size of cities. Anyway, she wasn't having it. She had never worked in the NHS but knew how to fix it. I just shrugged and left her to her delusions.

The last section of the course was a dissertation. I did a study trying to see if positive reflection on work affected job satisfaction. I didn't find any statistically valid effect except that if you ask people to reflect on their successes they are more likely to be dissatisfied with the performance of their manager. This is bad news for me as I now line manage three people, so I obviously need to make sure they only think about their failures and not their successes! (Only joking!)

The dissertation took up the latter half of 2016, particularly the final three months. When I finally submitted it in January, the feeling of relief was immense. I remember going with Cathy to the cinema and sitting there and realising that I didn't feel guilty about doing something fun for the first time in months.

The graduation ceremony was fun too. We were arranged in order of qualification and then alphabetically by course title. There were only four of us attending the graduation and 'Business Psychology' was the first of the MSc courses listed. One of the PhD students didn't show, meaning that my friend Nick was the second person called on stage and I was the third. We had an address from Steven Moffatt, the Doctor Who show-runner. He was quite funny but overdid the message of how badly his generation had messed things up for the generation of fresh-faced youngsters who made up the majority of graduates there.

I was very pleased to share the day with Cathy. and with Connor, who had come down from Birmingham for the event. Cathy was my rock during the dissertation in particular, but she has also been a tremendous support throughout the course. Without her, I'm not sure I would have carried on post-diagnosis back in 2015 so it seemed only fitting that I let her share my graduation hat!