Sunday, January 31, 2021

January 2021 End of Month Review

We are one month through 2021 already. January has been a lockdown month, but a few things have happened. I also blogged a lot so this will be a mix of links back over the month's posts and a few other things that I hadn't mentioned.

One of the big things I haven't blogged previously was my Mum celebrating her three-quarter century. Unfortunately we couldn't have a big party because of lockdown. However, we adopted her an orangutan in Chester Zoo and we sent her a cuddly King Louie to remind her of her adopted orangutan. At some point when restrictions ease, we plan to meet up as a family and go and see the orangutan in person. 

Here's King Louie getting ready for transit:

While there are disadvantages to getting older, at least turning 75 meant my Mum bumped up a level in the vaccination tiers, and I'm really glad she managed to get her jab this weekend. It hopefully means she will be safer from the effects of this virus that doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.

What else went on in January? Well, I published my annual Christmas card audit for the ninth year in a row, marked my sixth "diaversary" with a post about my diabetes recovery journey, started reading one of the Judge Dredd case files books I got for Christmas, watched a lot of football on TV, and generally concentrated on making it through Lockdown III. Cathy and I also sorted our stocks of loose Lego into a coherent storage system. It took some time!

One of the many benefits of living in Sunny-Grangetown-on-Sea is the mild climate. I felt a bit envious of my friends living elsewhere who got some proper snow to go out and play in though. Overall the weather has been quite grey and miserable, as if it's in favour of people staying indoors and out of harm's way.

Talking of being in harm's way, I've had a frozen shoulder for six months now. I was actually able to get a proper face-to-face physio appointment at the beginning of January. I had the shoulder worked on by the physio and two students, which was quite helpful because the physio explained things to the students so I learned a lot about how shoulders work (or in my case, don't work!) and why it couldn't be nerve damage. He was a bit disappointed that their actions had no discernible effect on my movement, but I felt it was a useful appointment.

A few week's back I posted about my 2020 Jaffa Cake comparison project. The 2021 project is up and running and I was very excited when Cathy came back from the shops with these!

I will be blogging about them in due course!

Meanwhile, over on my blog about Tony Gwynn baseball cards I ran out of baseball cards to blog about. I then managed to get hold of some more! I'm now up to 578 cards in total. I have spent a lot of time looking at baseball cards on eBay. 

On one of my late night eBay trawls I found a cigarette card depicting my Great Uncle Tom who played football for Wales. I am planning a blog post about him soon, but in the meantime, here is a century-old collectible featuring a member of my family.

Roll on February. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Mandalorian recycles a critique of religion

The Mandalorian was my favourite TV show of 2020 and the second series was even stronger than the first. But a conversation in the penultimate episode brought up some philosophical challenges to religious belief that surprised me. There are SPOILERS ahead - so stop reading now if that bothers you.

This is the way

The episode was titled "The Believer". The basic premise is that the Mandalorian and his team spring a prisoner called Mayfield to help them steal information from an Imperial base. Mayfield and the Mandalorian had crossed paths in the first series, and Mayfield ended up in a New Republic prison after trying to double-cross the Mandalorian, so there was an element of reconciliation and redemption about this episode; two big themes ripe for exploration.

Mayfield and the Mandalorian end up riding in an Imperial transport together. They have both put on stolen Imperial armour, which meant the Mandalorian had taken off his helmet and replaced it with a trooper's helmet. 

Then comes the interesting conversation. Mayfield comments that to the indigenous people on this particular planet the Empire and the New Republic are very similar. Both are external occupiers fighting their own war and the people are collateral damage in the middle. I've cribbed the dialogue from IMDb.

Mayfeld: Yeah. Empire, New Republic. It's all the same to these people. Invaders on their land is all we are. I'm just sayin', somewhere someone in this galaxy is ruling and others are being ruled. I mean, look at your race. Do you think all those people that died in wars fought by Mandalorians actually had a choice? So how are they any different than the Empire. If you were born on Mandalore, you believe one thing, if you're born on Alderaan, you believe something' else. But guess what? Neither one of them exist anymore. Hey, I'm just a realist. I'm a survivor, just like you.

The Mandalorian: Let's get one thing straight. You and I are nothing alike.

Mayfeld: I don't know. Seems to me like your rules start to change when you get desperate. I mean, look at ya. You said you couldn't take off your helmet off, and now you got a stormtrooper one on, so what's the rule? Is it you can't take off your Mando helmet, or you can't show your face? 'Cause there is a difference. Look, I'm just sayin', we're all the same. Everybody's got their line they don't cross until things get messy. As far as I'm concerned, if you can make it through your day and still sleep at night, you're doin' better than most.

Mayfield's questions about the Mandalorian's helmet relate to how, previously, the Mandalorian had insisted that removing his helmet was against his creed. He points out that the Mandalorian seems to be changing the requirements of his religion. That's an interesting thing to discuss in itself and maybe I will in a future blog post.

It's the previous dialogue that surprised me though. "If you were born on Mandalore, you believe one thing, if you're born on Alderaan, you believe something' else."

This is a criticism made of religious belief that is made currently in this galaxy as well as a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I think I first read it in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - the idea that for most people their religious affiliation is linked to where they were born and the culture they were raised in. 

Accordingly, the fervent evangelical Christians raised in the American Deep South and the fervent Muslims raised in Islamic theocracies, and the fervent Hindus raised in India, and the fervent Roman Catholics raised in Ireland, Italy or Spain, and the fervent Mormons raised in Utah, are just the products of their time and place. In other words, any believer's religion is most likely to be the product of circumstances than anything else. Most people retain the religion they were raised in, even if they don't actively practise, which is why the number of people who gave their religion as "Christian" on the last UK census is over ten times as many as the number of regular churchgoers.

The challenge to believers from people pointing this out is, broadly, how do you know that you believe what you believe because it's true or do you just believe it because you've always been told that it's true? That's quite a question to reflect on.

For me, I'm just interested that this discussion is being had using Mandalore and Alderaan as proxies for names of religions. It's not the first time the philosophy of religion has crept into mainstream media. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 posited that the moral response to a god that caused suffering and pain was to seek to kill it. (I blogged about that here.) More recently the TV show The Good Place asked whether being 'good' to avoid punishment was genuinely being 'good'.

In the second series as a whole, the Mandalorian is confronted with several challenges to his beliefs, and this is one of them. I suspect for many people this dialogue would hardly have registered as making an important philosophical point. And yet the potential depth of this discussion, which didn't go on for long in the episode, adds something to The Mandalorian as a TV show, giving it some relevance to the world we inhabit.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sunk Cost Bias - getting trapped in our mistakes

Several years ago I was sat in the waiting room of a garage, waiting for the mechanics to bring my car out onto the forecourt. There was a chap sat next to me who started bemoaning how much his car was costing him. He was facing a bill for £800. 

My old car. Took me to Mull and back.

I remember him saying how in the few months since he had bought the car it had needed several expensive repairs and he had already spent over £1000 on it. Now he had to spend another £800, and he felt that if he didn't spend it then that £1000 would have been "wasted".

He was trapped in a cycle of spending money to keep that car roadworthy, and I imagine he ended up spending a lot more money in the end.

I didn't know it then, but I know now why he felt trapped and that he had to carry on spending money on a car that was obviously a lemon from the get-go. He was experiencing 'sunk cost bias'.

The easiest way to explain sunk cost bias is that if we have committed a lot of time, energy and resource to a given project or relationship then it is harder to end it. We still feel the value of the costs we have 'sunk' and feel we would be losing those things forever, so we try and hold on to them by continuing to invest. Sunk cost bias is why the longer you stay in a dead end job the harder it gets to leave, why people persist with personal relationships that are damaging to them, and why companies keep shoveling money into projects as costs spiral out of control and delivery deadlines are missed. 

The essential truth though, is that those sunk costs are already gone. You will never get back the costs you have sunk into something even if you keep investing in it. That chap with the car needed to realise that the £1000 he had spent on it was gone. He was now being asked to pay another £800 but that wasn't going to bring back the £1000 he had already spent. He wasn't going to recoup any of his losses by spending more money. 

Similarly if you are in a situation where you have given a lot of time to a relationship or to a career which is robbing you of joy on a daily basis or causing you continuous stress, that time has passed and is gone forever. Committing more time to trying to make that failing relationship work or for that job to improve is not going to restore the time you have lost. 

Identifying a sunk cost bias in your own life can be liberating. When you realise that the money or the time or the effort has gone, whatever you choose to do, you can start making choices based on what you want and need right now. You can draw a line under damaging and costly experiences and start anew.

Nothing is ever truly wasted, of course, if you turn it into a learning experience. In fact, at it's most basic level, sunk cost bias is a failure to learn. It places so much emphasis on what has happened in the past it prevents you from exploring possible futures. But to make those futures a reality you have to let go of the sunk costs that are dragging you under with them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Six years in recovery

It’s my 6 year “diaversary” today. 

6 years ago I had an unexpected and unwelcome diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.

The kit I came home with from hospital

I had gone to the doctor because I had pains in my legs. I had been on a flight on a small plane and at the end of the flight I could barely walk as my legs had been constricted for over an hour. I went to the GP who looked at me quizzically and told me to come back for blood tests.

I went and had blood taken on the Monday. At about 9.30am on the Tuesday I had a phone call from the GP surgery and told to come round to the surgery immediately. When I got there I was told I had a very high blood glucose level and was sent to hospital. 

I was told it was very serious – the only thing I enjoyed hearing was that they didn’t know if it was Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes because I was “on the cusp of being young”! I was 38 years old. It felt good to still be on the cusp of youth.

As I sat in the hospital my blood glucose levels were checked hourly and they started to fall, which ruled out Type 1 diabetes. The following day I saw the diabetes nurse and a consultant. I came home on two types of medication, one of which meant I had to check my blood glucose levels regularly.

My Hba1c, the measure of glucose in my blood over the preceding three months, was 91 at diagnosis. It was over double the level regarded as normal or safe, which is 42.

When I returned to the consultant 3 months later my HbA1c was down to 43. I discontinued one of the medications; the one that often made me hypoglycaemic. After 6 months, in June 2015, my HbA1c was 39 and I was discharged from the diabetes clinic at the hospital.

My HbA1c has not been above 40 since I was discharged.

In those six months I had changed what I ate. I reduced my carbohydrate intake considerably. I lost 10kg in weight, about 2 and a half stone, which was over 10 per cent of my body mass. I was still taking daily doses of metformin, which is one of the most common pharmaceutical treatments for Type 2 diabetes.

In June 2018, after regular HbA1c scores of 40 or below, I halved my dose of metformin. In January 2019, after checking with my GP, I stopped taking it altogether.

Since then I have lost my dad, supported my mum through her bereavement, and experienced ten months of pandemic life. My Hba1c was 38 in the summer of 2020, and my most recent score, received last week was 38 again.

I was surprised to score 38 again as I was expecting it to be higher. In hindsight I could have maybe eaten more mince pies at Christmas, given my HbA1c score.

So, what does this all mean? Well, Type 2 diabetes does not have to be a permanent condition. I have had a non-diabetic HbA1c for 5 and a half years. I don’t feel like I’m special or unique in terms of my metabolism. I feel if I can achieve this, then other people could as well.

But I have wondered a lot why I have been able to do this and so many people don’t. I think there are some things that really helped me to achieve this.

One of those things is a sense of personal agency and a lot of support to change. My wife Cathy has really helped me as I sought to change my eating habits. She became carb-aware alongside me. I was already in the habit of checking food labels from being vegetarian, so looking at carbohydrate levels in food wasn’t a completely novel thing. 

I received some diabetes education, which my employer allowed me to attend, and that helped me in my appreciation of what carbohydrates did, and how much carbohydrate I should be eating.  I am literate and retain information that I have been presented with, so was able to learn about diabetes and some of the things that affect blood glucose levels. I realise lots of people don’t have positive feelings towards education and maybe struggle to process new information.

I felt I could change and I did. Not everyone has that freedom.

When I was diagnosed I usually walked to and from work, about 20 minutes each way. In the morning I walked faster than in the evening because I was always a little bit late. Once I started regulating how much carbohydrate I was eating, that daily walk really helped me shift the weight. It’s not easy to lose weight, but suddenly having to buy new trousers because I’d lost 4 inches off my waistline and buy t-shirts in a medium instead of XL felt good.

Something else that contributed was being proactive about my healthcare. I make appointments to get blood tests and other various checks done. I don’t just wait for my GP to get in touch. It’s my health and I take a proactive role in managing it. Talking to the practice nurse, and the different GPs in my surgery, not everybody does that.

I also had a blood glucose monitor – given to me to help manage the effects of my initial medication – which I have used a lot over the years. It’s useful to know what is happening in your bloodstream but I know the majority of people with Type 2 diabetes aren’t given a monitor so have no way of checking.

Six months after my diagnosis I started a new role working in the NHS supporting a clinical network caring for people with diabetes. I have absorbed a lot of information about diabetes in that time, the causes, the effects, how to live with it. I have met a lot of people who have inspired me in my own challenges. Some have become friends. Some have become more like family.

There is a stigma attached to Type 2 diabetes. Media stories and online commenters often blame people for bringing diabetes on themselves. I have been cautious about talking about it, sometimes not wanting to tell people, for fear they would equate my illness with poor life choices, moral failure, or weakness of character.

A chap called Paul, who has Type 1 diabetes, helped me rethink weight gain. Fat is just stored energy. Our bodies are very efficient at not wasting energy and storing it for later. My body was doing a very good job at laying up stores of energy for use in future lean times. But those lean times never came.

So when I put on weight, it wasn’t that my body was somehow failing. It was that it was too good at doing its job! I was too efficient for my own good.

And that’s why I got diabetes. Because the blood cells brought glucose to the muscle cells and said ’Hey, do you need any energy?’ and my muscle cells looked around and saw all the stored fat and said ‘No, we’re good, thanks.’ And so the glucose-energy stayed in my bloodstream, unneeded, and the body had to get rid of it another way. (Which is why I needed to wee a lot!)

For me, looking at weight gain as efficient use of energy – and diabetes as the result when the body has been really efficient with energy – is a much more positive approach. It means I need to reconsider the energy I am putting into my body, the amount of fat and carbohydrates in my food.

That’s a mindset change that cuts through the stigma that other people try to attach. I’m not sorry that I have a superbly efficient metabolism. I make no apology for learning late that I need to monitor my inputs because I have a superbly efficient metabolism. At least I learned it.

And an approach I’ve developed myself to describe my current state as a person with diabetes and a non-diabetic HbA1c is not to use the word ‘remission’. It sounds too medical and, again, as if something has been done to me to cause remission, rather than it being something I’ve done to myself.

I prefer to think of it as recovery rather than remission. I am a recovering diabetic. Like someone who is in recovery and is sober, it’s a choice every day. A choice of what I eat. Some days are easy. Some days are not. But the choices I make today determine my overall health both now and in the long-term.

I am six years in to my recovery. I have kept the weight off and I have kept my HbA1c at a range where healthcare professionals have told me that I don't have diabetes any more. I just smile at that. What they mean is it doesn't show now. And I want it to stay that way.


Sunday, January 17, 2021

When all our cells change why do we expect to stay the same?

This post has been sitting in my draft folder since January 2017. Given some recent conversations I've had, I feel like it's worth an airing (with a few minor edits).

I find New Year quite melancholic. It's a time to reflect on what's happened and look back on stuff. (In 2017, for various reasons, I ended up looking back a bit further than normal. This is mainly because of reconnecting with some people I had been in school with over two decades previous.)

I journal offline as well and reading old journal entries, or my old blog posts on here, sometimes makes me feel like I'm reading about a different person. Douglas Coupland warns us that nostalgia is a weapon and sometimes I can turn that weapon on myself by thinking about the past and about how much has changed.

The thing about change is that it's rarely in huge increments. Yes, some are life-changing and can happen over a few short days (for example, diagnosis of a chronic illness), but most of our changes - in attitudes and priorities - happen slowly.

I read somewhere that all the cells in our bodies are renewed every ten years or so. I've been in a relationship over 25 years. I'm a whole new man. In fact, I'm the second whole new man to have been in the relationship. An entire version of me has died off and been replaced. And we didn't even know it.

Or did we? I'm not the same person as I was 25 years ago. Experiences and achievements, wins and losses, have made their mark. I feel a lot less certain about some of the things I was so certain about back then. Things that were once important don't matter and things that never used to matter to me suddenly seem important. How much of this is just the weight of living pressing down on me and how much is actually physical? Feelings of attachment and abandonment originate in brain cells that change like any other cell. As my cells change does that have an effect on my opinions?

There's a couplet in an Avett Brothers song that goes: 
I want to have friends 
That I can trust 
That love me for the man that I am 
Not the man that I was. 
I really like that lyric because it shows how we can be perceived as the person we were in the past, even though we have changed. That can be a battle if we have grown up, if we react differently now, if we have different priorities. When people assume we will always act a certain way that can be constraining and they may not like it if we do something they don't expect.

There's also a danger in such expectations. If we know we are loved because of what we were when we were first loved then it's hard to say we have become something different. We become inauthentic versions of ourselves, afraid to admit what we really feel or think or believe at this point in time, in case it turns out the people who love us love us because of who we were then, not who we are now.

It's hard to see people for who they have become. If we have friends and loved ones who do see us for who we are and not who we were, then we are very fortunate.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Snack of the Month - Ding Dong

I've decided to inject some excitement into my life and sample new things. On my last trip to Asda I went down the 'foreign foods' aisle and found this snack mix.

It had come all the way from the Philippines and was 75p for a bag. It's a mix of dried beans, peas, crunchy bits and peanuts.  It looks like this:

It's a very nice "telly snack". I was expecting it to be spicy like Bombay Mix, but it isn't. You can taste the different components of the snack mix without being overwhelmed by flavourings. It's very moreish, and the name is fun to say!

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Divine personality types in the workplace

I was sorting out my home office over the Christmas and New Year break and was distracted by one of the books I acquired while doing my MSc in Business Psychology. It’s a book called Inside Organizations by Charles Handy, a companion book to a TV series from 1991.

The book offers 21 ideas for managers, and is a mix of organisational psychology ideas. Quite a bit has changed in terms of working environments in the past 30 years, but a lot of the book is about working with people, and people haven’t changed that much. 

One chapter is entitled ‘Find your God’ and Charles borrows from the ancient Greek pantheon to illustrate four different workplace personality characteristics. I’m a bit sceptical of profiling tools like this as I feel there are way more than four blends of personality traits which create different people. But it’s an amusing diversion and I was intrigued by the religious angle.

Charles starts off by commenting on the diversity of religious expression in the classical world and outlines his thoughts that like-minded people were attracted to the veneration of the same gods so met people similar to themselves in the temple they chose to attend. I’m not a hundred per cent convinced that there was that amount of free choice in religious observance in the classical world, but broadly speaking he has a point. 

Furthermore, he theorises that certain personality types were attracted to certain deities based on the personality type of the worshipper. In some ways we see this play out in organised monotheistic religions as well. Different groups emphasise different teachings and different aspects of God’s personality within world religions, which is why we get schisms and sectarian disputes, even wars. And different groups attract different types of people – authoritarians are drawn to authoritarian structures, for example.

The four gods Charles identifies as work personality types are:
Zeus – the leader with “personality” who wields power and expects people to follow orders and deliver results
Apollo – the god of logic who wants everyone to follow the carefully delineated rules 
Athena – the goddess of warriors and adventurers, with an emphasis on team-working and a fascination with innovation
Dionysus – the god of excess, although Charles describes him as the “god of the free spirit”

There are probably aspects of all four gods that appeal to everyone. Zeus-type personalities place great store on selecting the right people to build a team of skilful experts who they can rely on. I have always informally done that, and have built up a network of people I know will help if I need it. The routine, security and predictability of Apollo-type personalities can also be comforting at times. Uncertainty isn’t conducive to long-term happiness or productivity. That’s one lesson we all learned from 2020! I also value being part of a high-functioning team sharing delivery of objectives, like the Athena-people. When I look back at the times when I have felt the most satisfied in work it is usually linked to being part of a smooth-running high-performing team. 

But the one god whose characteristics most resonated with me was Dionysus. Charles is very careful not to describe Dionysian rites which focused on drinking lots of wine, probably because that doesn’t sound like very professional behaviour. Instead he describes Dionysus-people as the ‘free spirits’, who tolerate working in organizations as long as the organization doesn’t get in their way. 

He sums this up, saying “they see the organization as serving them rather than the other way round”, which is something I have often thought with regards to bureaucracy. To borrow from Christianity for a moment, is the Sabbath made for man, or man made for the Sabbath? In other words, do the processes exist to help people do their jobs, or do people end up having to complete endless forms in order to feed the bureaucracy? 

A slightly more positive way of framing that is people choose to work in organizations so that they can do the job they love to do. Charles specifically uses doctors as an example of free spirits who tolerate the organization’s existence, because it’s hard to practice medicine outside a healthcare organization. (It’s not impossible, the extreme Dionysus-people doctors are probably working in a remote field clinic for an NGO somewhere.)

As someone who finds satisfaction in planning and delivering communications, the way Charles describes the Dionysus-people feels very natural. He identifies some key aspects of their approach to work that I recognised in myself.

“To a Dionysian, the quality of the work is paramount... They are craftsmen obsessed with their craft, uninterested in power or position as long as they have enough to guarantee them their freedom to work as they wish.” 

I really concur with the obsession bit. When I was tidying up the office I found a folder of samples of promotional material that I had kept for inspiration. I also found a ring-binder full of good copywriting techniques and tips that I had gathered from a number of different places. I did that on my own initiative because I wanted to improve as a writer.

I’m not sure about being uninterested in power or position, but if that means not being impressed by other people’s job titles, then, yes, I have a history of saying frank things to people much higher up the organizational structure than me. However, I definitely value autonomy in my work and in the past have struggled with very directive management. 

Charles goes on to say that Dionysus-people are team players “when they have to be” although they “prefer to be left alone to get on with work in their own way.” They are “loners” and as people they “seek respect, influence and freedom.” There’s an interesting distinction there between ‘influence’ and ‘power’, which reflects changes in terminology since the book was written. I think now ‘influence’ would be seen as ‘soft power’, with potentially more to be gained by influencing people who hold powerful positions than holding those positions oneself. 

I also wouldn’t describe myself as a loner, but I am an introvert and I do like time by myself. 

Charles concludes that organizations find Dionysus-people “uncomfortable” and that they don’t respond to the usual people-management tools like promotions or reprimands. He says, “They seem to have a loyalty to their craft or profession which overrides their commitment to the organization.” This makes me think of doctors who act as whistle-blowers to expose deficient care, or military personnel who leak documents to reveal cover-ups and war crimes. 

Organizations have changed massively in 30 years. When Charles wrote that book, email was not present in many organizations and the interconnected nature of modern-day working would have been regarded as futuristic fiction. But as I said, people are still people, and personality types still impact heavily on the way individuals work in organizations. If the gods of ancient Greece are archetypes, which is certainly a valid way of interpreting those religious expression, then those archetypes probably still apply. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Kids Christmas Cards

One of my favourite aspects of opening Christmas cards as they arrive in the post are getting the ones with drawings by kids on. Some schools do this as a fundraising project and I imagine parents are made to feel they should buy these cards. Well, if that's you, then I hope you know they're appreciated here. 

We had five cards that were designed by kids and an additional two handmade cards made by kids. I thought it would be nice to show them off in a blog post. I'm going to put them up in alphabetical order, starting with a card designed by Alba.

Anna's card also featured in my blogpost featuring my 10 favourite cards. I'm including it again here for completeness sake. Also, because I love it.

My niece Iona drew Santa in his sleigh with a huuuuuuuuuge present to be delivered. 

This card is handmade and comes from Jimmy and Freddie's family. I'm not sure if the work was done by Jimmy or Freddie. I suspect Jimmy because Freddie is very little and this card has stickers stuck on it.  And googly eyes!

Solid work here from Lola. I think she may have had some help. 

There is a lot going on in this card designed by Robyn. A deconstructed Santa Claus, with his sleigh above and a tree below for him to put presents under. I'm genuinely impressed with how much is in this drawing. It's the entire story of Santa delivering presents. And he's sprinkling magical sparkles.

And finally a card from my nephew, Zac, with a very neat tree on it. We ended up with two copies of this card because he wrote a second one to us.

That's the last of the posts about Christmas cards for this ACCA season. I hope you enjoyed these cards as much as I did. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Don't go driving home for Christmas...

Every so often a weird theme emerges in one of my annual Christmas card audits. A couple of years ago I commented on how 'Hares & Moons' seemed to be a thing. This year we had two cards that were incredibly similar in theme, but were produced by two totally different retailers in different illustration styles.

Imagine if you will a little red car, laden down with presents and Christmas supplies. Chances are what you're imagining looks a bit like this.

Or maybe a bit more like this...

These cards were produced by Tesco and Tiger respectively, and the similarity is uncanny. Both feature red cars that look like stylised Volkswagen Beetles. Both are carrying a Christmas Tree. They are both driving left to right.

There are always going to be shared sources of inspiration for designers and illustrators. Equally, there are always going to be certain themes that appeal to commissioning editors and company buyers in any given year. I am reasonably certain these designs were dreamt up, committed to paper or screen, shown to decision-makers, and given the nod for production, completely independently. It just feel weird seeing them next to each other.

It was also ironic as well as 2020 was Pandemic Christmas and people weren't supposed to be driving anywhere. That couldn't have been predicted when the decisions were made to produce the cards, and it just goes to show how much things have been changed by the pandemic. Certainly travel bans would not have been one of the first things I thought of if I had received this card a year ago!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

10 cards from the ACCA2020

A selection of Christmas cards that we received for Christmas 2020. It's harder to make this selection than to do the actual audit!

One of the categories that we usually get a few entries in is "Christmas Food". Unusually this year we didn't get any cards of Christmas puddings or mince pies. We did, however get a picture of these adorable cupcakes.

(Pretty sure that says Merry Christmas, although the font makes it look like Messy Christmas at first glance.)

Staying on the theme of food, there's always a very good chance of your card making it into the selection for my blog if it includes a pun, as this one does. This card made me hungry every time I looked at it.

Speaking of puns, this year was the first time I got a card with a Welsh pun on it. Unfortunately I didn't say the greeting out loud until I had already asked what the joke was. Then I got the joke before the reply text arrived.

Some of these scans are a bit wonky and odd (like the one of E.T. there) because I set up my overhead scanner to scan one card and then tried to scan them all using it. This next card was the reason I set up the overhead scanner. If I'm a sucker for puns, I'm a ma-hoosive sucker for googly eyes.

That's tinsel on the bottom as well. I didn't know how it would work squashing it into a flatbed scanner. 

That card is the reason the ACCA2020 records 4.5 penguin cards and 0.5 Snowpeople cards. I couldn't assign it to just the one category.

Penguins are popular on Christmas cards, even though they aren't North Pole animals. They're cute though.

That one at the bottom right looks like he is shouting "Hooray!" Probably because he's been able to swivel his wings in an utterly unnatural direction for a penguin.

I always try to include at least one religious-themed card in the selection. Truthfully, they tend to be quite dull. However the following card was a bit different and the only card received this year to mention Jesus on the front.

The lettering is foil and shiny, but hasn't scanned very well. I couldn't get this to scan properly under the overhead scanner so resorted to the flatbed.

"Sport" was a new category this year, occasioned by a card from a fellow baseball card collector. This card has featured on my baseball card blog as well - it was my Christmas Day post.

For those who don't know, I collect baseball cards featuring Tony Gwynn (over 570 so far!), but this is the only one in my collection that's been doctored to show him in a Santa hat!

Talking of Santa hats, there was another returning category this year - dogs! We had two cards with pictures of dogs wearing Santa hats, but my favourite one had several hatless dogs on.

I must admit, it surprises even me that I chose to show off hatless dogs rather than behatted dogs, but that card's just too cute.

Another new category this year was 'References to the Pandemic'. We had one card in the category, and I really liked it. Everyone, meet Rudolph the Red Masked Reindeer.

And if that's got you humming a tune, this final card might well have the same effect. This was actually the card that Cathy gave me and as usual, she brought some strong game. A cute design, a cracking pun, and raccoons. Gotta love raccoons!

There's only the first line there, so I've added to it.

"Raccoon around the Christmas Tree
In the Christmas Party bins
Eating the trash so merrily
With our furry bandit grins."

Seriously, someone needs to make that into an actual song.

So those are 10 cards that I really liked from the ones we were sent this year. Many thanks to everyone who sent us a card. Look out for some forthcoming extra posts about Christmas cards coming soon.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

The Big Annual Christmas Card Audit 2020

I've been running this audit since 2012 and it is easily the most popular feature on this blog. Which is a bit weird, but, hey, I'm all for giving people what they want.

I'm going to proffer my thanks to Cathy for her assistance in the audit this year before we get into the audit proper, rather than tacking it on like an afterthought. Thanks Cathy!

Here's a picture of our Christmas cards in the "Audit Basket" before the audit began. 

And so on to the audit! As ever new categories are marked with an asterisk. There are also some returning categories including the much-missed Dogs in Santa Hats! I've marked returning categories as RC.

Total number of cards: 81 (down from 84 in 2019)
Hand-made / home-produced cards: 7
Cards designed by kids: 6
Cards with glitter: 8 (a reduction from 13 in 2019 - perhaps reflecting new 'glitter is evil' messaging)
RC ~ M&S Cards: 4

Cards sold in aid of charity (or fundraising): 48
Total number of charities represented: a massive 60, but this was boosted by one card that was raising funds that would be split between 32 charities
Most popular charity represented: British Heart Foundation with 11 cards, making it 3 years in a row for BHF

Charity card cause breakdown (this is approximate because some cards covered more than one type of cause)
Cards raising money for cancer charities: 19
Cards raising money for other health issues: 37
Animal charities: 2
Children's charities: 15
Overseas development charities: 12

Religious-themed cards: 20 - this was down from 24 in 2019 and means that less than a quarter of the cards we received had a religious design
Cards featuring the Nativity: 15
Three kings: 2
The shepherds: 0 (I think this is the first time we have recorded zero)
These themes all recorded zero entries as well: The star of Bethlehem. Angels. Choirboys, 'Cartoony' religious

Other themes
Santa: 8 (big increase, up from just 3 in 2019)
Penguins: 4.5 (one card was a penguin and a snowman in equal prominence)
Bears: 2
Deer/reindeer: 6
Christmas trees: 8
Christmas food: 2
Robins: 2
Sheep: 2
RC ~ Dogs: 3 (of which 2 had Santa hats!)
Other animals with or without Santa hats: 1
Winter scene/scenery: 5
Snowpeople: 0.5 (see the penguin category for explanation)
Licensed characters: 2 (although I suspect 1 was used without a license)
Holly and wreaths: 7 (up from zero in 2019, so a big trend change there)
*Sport: 1
*Christmas present(s):1
*Cars laden for Christmas: 2
*Reference to the Pandemic: 1

Themes that didn't register any cards this year: Christmas Elf, Christmas decorations, Donkeys, Snow / snowflakes, Llamas, Hares and Moons, Mistletoe, Owls

Messages on front of card 
Cards that mention 'Christmas' on the front: 32 (of which only 2 were religious)
"Seasons Greetings": 1
Mentions "Jesus": 1
RC ~ "Peace": 2
Bible verse: 1
Lines or titles of Christmas carols: 10
Lines or titles of Christmas songs: 3

So what conclusions am I drawing from this year? Santa was more popular than he's been for a while. In terms of the Christmas story people chose to send us Kings rather than Shepherds. There's always been a disparity in favour of the Kings but it was a real surprise to get no Shepherds at all. It would appear the 'Hares looking at the full moon' theme is over. But in it's place we got two very similar designs that will get their own blog post soon. Yet again, I'm surprised how few animal charities are represented among the fundraising cards, but it feels like the percentage of cards that are fundraising cards is going up - it was over half the cards this year.

I will be posting some of our favourite cards over the next few days. Thank you everyone who sent us one.

The long list of previous audits

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Review of 2020 - new films

I watched 41 films for the first time in 2020, but only seven of them were actually new releases. I saw three in cinemas before they closed under lockdown rules in March, and I saw another five new releases on Netflix and Disney Plus. So this isn't going to be a long post at all.

Even though we only went to the cinema three times, Cathy and I did get to meet a film star. 

The eight films were (in order):

  • 1917
  • JoJo Rabbit
  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
  • Onward
  • Enola Holmes
  • Mulan
  • Soul
  • The Midnight Sky

1917 was a very well-made first world war film where the central conceit was that it was filmed as if it was a continuous shot. Although there were a few 'fade to black' moments. I thought it started really well, with the panning shots down trenches, but a bit like the central protagonists who got sent to deliver a message, it got lost a little bit along the way. It captured that sense of danger, especially in the quiet bits not knowing when or if a shot or bomb would come out of nowhere. I would say it was worth watching, but I wouldn't want to watch it again.

JoJo Rabbit was a second world war film that tried to be three films in one - a film about the Nazification of children by the Hitler Youth, a film about Germans resisting the Nazi regime, and a film about Jews in hiding from the Gestapo. The second theme was the one least served by the script. There were some very clever touches throughout the film, which focused mainly on the little boy, JoJo, and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. 

I was uncomfortable seeing the Hitler Youth sections played for laughs, but that's probably just as well. It was very black humour, particularly the lines delivered by the ever-excellent Sam Rockwell. As it became apparent that the regime was willing to use children dressed in paper uniforms as cannon fodder to slow down the advancing Allied armies, the real dark heart of Nazism was exposed, and if it had been played entirely straight, then it would have been unrelentingly grim. 

Changing the tone slightly, the film I saw most recently in a cinema was A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. This starred Tom Hanks, as the real-life Mister Rogers whose show 'Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood' was a hugely popular children's TV show for decades in America. I have never watched that show so can't really compare Hanks' portrayal to the real person. During the film, Rogers is interviewed by a hatchet-job reporter who sets out to find the real Fred Rogers behind the TV persona, only to find that Fred is the genuinely nice guy he portrays on TV.

It's a schmaltzy film. Probably the schmaltziest film I've seen in a long time, with a family reconciliation theme in the life of the hardbitten reporter that was saccharine. There was a bit of the 'uncanny valley' about Hanks' portrayal as well. So overall it wasn't a film I'd bother watching again.

Onward was Pixar's film most affected by the pandemic, with it's release date bumped and then pulled completely in favour of release on Disney Plus. It's set in a fairy-tale style world that has modernised and magic has died out, although there are still creatures like unicorns (which knock over garbage bins to root through the trash) and fairies (who are a biker gang). The main story is about a young troll who discovers his late father was a magician and has created a spell that could bring his dad back from the dead for a short period of time. The spell goes wrong and only half his dad appears, so he and his brother go on a quest to finish the spell.

It had its moments, and lots of funny gags. The scene at the Manticore's Tavern was probably my favourite. But I felt it was trying too hard to make an emotional impact and unfortunately it couldn't land its punches. 

Enola Holmes was released on Netflix. It stars Millie Bobby Brown, who played Seven in Stranger Things, as Enola, the younger sister of Sherlock Holmes. She has the same sleuthing mind and puts it to use when her mother disappears. There is a sub-plot involving the suffragette movement but the main story involved Enola getting mixed up with a young aristocrat who is on the run because his life is in danger. 

I liked the film. Millie Bobby Brown carried it well, with lots of breaking the fourth wall. There was a scene filmed at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, and having been there and seen the sheds full of train carriages that are used in various period dramas, I found it quite amusing to try and see how many different coaches they used. This was based on the first book in a young adult fiction series, and I would be very keen to watch sequels.

Mulan was a live-action remake of the classic Disney cartoon, released on Disney Plus in lieu of a cinema release. I have two main issues with the film. Firstly, if you are going to remove the best character from a film, in this case Mushu the dragon, for the sake of 'realism' why replace that character with another supernatural character who was a bit crap? Secondly, if you are going to recreate an iconic scene, like Mulan triggering an avalanche with a fire rocket, why change the mechanism of that scene, and make it crap?

Disney keep remaking their classic cartoons as live action movies, and I've been disappointed with them. (Cinderella is perhaps the exceptions because the original cartoon is a really boring film anyway.) If Disney are going to keep doing remakes, they could at least be making Muppet versions of these films, which would be a lot more entertaining. 

On Christmas Day I watched Soul, which was released on Disney Plus. Ostensibly it's a film about death and making sure you actually live your life before you die. The  main protagonist, voiced by Jamie Foxx, is a music teacher with dreams of playing in a real band, who gets his shot only to die in an accident. As a disembodied soul he tries to make his way back to Earth, only to wind up in a therapy cat that has been brought in to comfort his comatose body in the hospital. 

There are other stories around that, with some telling points about people losing sight of their lives by focusing too much on one thing, or being afraid to actually live at all. The animation is absolutely gorgeous at times. There are several jokes with the usual selection of clever gags that will probably go over the heads of kids who watch it. And overall there is that bold theme of actually experiencing life while it is being lived and finding joy in that. Pixar often take these deep themes and present them in a new way, and they are probably the film studio making the most philosophically challenging mainstream movies at the moment. 

The final film I watched this year was The Midnight Sky, which starred and was directed by George Clooney, and released on Netflix. George was the sole survivor of a catastrophe on Earth, and spent the film trying to warn a returning spaceship crew that the planet was a radioactive mess. It was two hours long, but felt longer, was pretty bleak throughout and didn't have much of a resolution. The few action sequences had predictable conclusions. By now, if there's a spacewalk and everyone is really happy at how successful its been, there is bound to be a disaster. And there was.

So, of those eight films, I think three were worth recommending. They would be JoJo Rabbit, Enola Holmes and Soul. Whereas Mulan and The Midnight Sky are ones to avoid. 

Sunday, January 03, 2021

This is the Way to my 2020 TV review

Here's a review of the telly I watched in 2020. (The picture is relevant!)

The only 'reality TV' series I watched was The Great British Bake Off. Kudos to the team for being able to film it during a pandemic, but really it followed the same format as it ever does. It was nice escapism to watch something where the only dreadful crisis is if someone has burned their biscuits or dropped their doughnuts on the floor. My main criticism is that Sandi Toksvig was a big loss on the presenting front. 

Back in the summer we started paying for BT Sport so that I could watch baseball on ESPN. I ended up getting up in the middle of the night on a couple of occasions to watch my team, the Padres. That included the post-season play-off games, all of which were shown across BT Sport. I've since taken up a special offer and we now have Sky Sports as well. So I've been watching a lot of football. 

Cathy and I have been having lunch together almost every day in lockdown. We tend to watch an episode of a comedy with lunch and have worked through all 11 seasons of Frasier, starting from season 1, and other American comedies, Man With a Plan, Superstore, and Single Parents.

Man With a Plan stars Matt LeBlanc as Adam and his on-screen wife, Linda, is played by Liza Snyder, who we used to watch years ago in a sitcom called Jesse where she was the sparky best friend of Christina Applegate's titular character. Given the twenty or so year gap between watching her in Jesse, it's quite funny to imagine that Joey from Friends married Linda from Jesse, and they both changed their names and moved to Pittsburgh. We watch a lot of American comedies and the connections via actors is quite funny. For example, Swoosie Kurtz plays Adam's mom. But she was also in Mike and Molly, playing Molly's mom. Again, it would be quite feasible for Adam and Molly to be estranged siblings with the same mom.

Superstore is set in a Walmart-style big box store populated by a mix of eccentric staff-members. What I like about it as a show is that none of the characters are just out-and-out stupid. Some are naive, and others are weird, but unlike in many British sitcoms where you tend to have one smart character surrounded by idiots, all these characters have depth. Single Parents is about a group of single parents whose children are all in the same school, and who have grouped together for mutual support. The cast is lifted by Brad Garrett, who I rate as one of the most overlooked comic actors at work today, and some really cool kid actors. The twin girls to whom Brad is a single dad, are perfectly cast as malevolent evil geniuses in waiting and yet manage to be adorable at the same time.

It was weird going back to Frasier after so long. It was well worth second look and it has held up much better than Friends, some 20-25 years on. Some plotlines jar, particularly around discussions of homosexuality, which were probably quite progressive when the show was written in the 90s, but feel a little bit old-fashioned now. One episode where Frasier is erroneously outed as gay doesn't have the same edge to it as it may have done originally, because who would really care now about that sort of thing?

One British sitcom we have discovered and quickly watched through on iPlayer is Upstart Crow, written by Ben Elton and starring David Mitchell as Will Shakespeare. There are a lot of laughs in this as it shows Will as a shameless plagiarist who is also adept at turning everyday life into scenes for his plays. There are running gags about terrible coach journeys between Stratford and London, and knowing nods to issues like immigration, European unity, and a country run by rich posh boys. There are a few rude bits, but they are placed in mock-Shakespearean language, and are quite funny. There are some jokes where it helps to have a bit of knowledge of Shakespeare and some of the controversial conspiracy theories about his writing, but overall I don't think you absolutely need to know what's going on to enjoy it.

And so on to my absolute TV highlight of the year - The Mandalorian on Disney Plus. This show was the reason we bought a year's subscription to the streaming service, and it was worth it. I reviewed the first season back on Star Wars Day. The second season was even better.


The second season follows the Mandalorian as he embarks on a quest given to him by his cult leader to deliver The Child (aka Baby Yoda) safely to the Jedi, who can train The Child to use the Force. It's a straight 'quest' narrative. Along the way the Mandalorian has to fight monsters like the Krayt Dragon and giant ice spiders, deal with treachery, strike up new alliances, and keep The Child out of the hands of the sinister Moff Gideon who wants to exploit The Child's abilities to help relaunch the Galactic Empire. 

I would quite like to know what people who aren't steeped in Star Wars make of The Mandalorian, because this series really felt like it was aimed squarely at fans. We see some characters return from the first series, but also live action debuts from two characters who were well-established in the Star Wars cartoon series. These are Bo-Katan Kryze (played by Katie Sackhoff), the exiled ruler of Mandalore, and the apostate Jedi, Ahsoka Tano (played by Rosario Dawson). Both these characters featured in The Clone Wars cartoon series and Star Wars Rebels

The episode with Ahsoka seemed to lay the groundwork for a future series about her, as she is seeking the whereabouts of Grand Admiral Thrawn. The last episode of Star Wars Rebels shows Ahsoka setting off on a quest to find Ezra Bridger, another Jedi survivor, who has disappeared along with Thrawn and Thrawn's fleet into hyperspace as part of a plan to liberate the planet Lothal. But I don't think you would need to know any of that to appreciate the episode.

This is something that the Mandalorian does very well. It throws in all these references to Star Wars lore, like the Krayt Dragon, or Operation Cinder, but in a way that doesn't bog down the storytelling or rely on you knowing what any of these things are before watching it. 

And then there were two big characters from the movies that returned - Boba Fett, and Luke Skywalker (three if you count R2-D2, which we probably should). It is now Star Wars canon that Boba Fett survived his encounter with the Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi and lives on to hunt bounties for another day. Meanwhile, we got to see Luke Skywalker in the early days of the New Republic when he was trying to create a new Jedi Academy. We know how that panned out from the events relayed in Star Wars Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

That leads on to a source of real concern for fans of the show. We now know The Child's name is Grogu, and he was entrusted to the care of Luke Skywalker. But we also know from The Last Jedi that Ben Solo went beserk and massacred the other Academy students. Grogu was once apparently in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, where the child Jedi were massacred by Anakin Skywalker.Will Grogu survive a second massacre of Force-attuned children? Let's hope so. 

There is going to be a third series of The Mandalorian, which I think will focus on the Mandalorian helping Bo-Katan's efforts to liberate the planet Mandalore. Given that this series ends with the Mandalorian fulfilling his quest, aided by Bo-Katan, it makes sense for the next series to pick up from there. Katie Sackhoff played the part of Bo-Katan very well, and I would be happy to watch a series where she had a main role. 

The big reveal at the end of Season 2, however, was that there is going to be a Boba Fett series called The Book of Boba Fett. As a fan of Boba Fett, this is excellent news and I am beyond excited about it.

I think the future for Star Wars is probably going to be these short-form series. Both series of The Mandalorian are only eight episodes long and yet they have been much more satisfying than some of the recent movies, which haven't performed as well as hoped at the box office. At one point Disney were planning to release a movie a year, but I think they have backtracked on that now.

And why would they invest in movies that might not work when TV shows like The Mandalorian can generate as much interest. The merchandise available for the show seems to have been very popular. It is also going to drive subscriptions for Disney Plus, and they don't have to split their costs with distribution companies or cinemas. And overall the shows are cheaper to make. They are filmed almost entirely on virtual sets with a small cast. The return on investment must be incredible. The executives must be thinking this is the way forward.

So that's my review of TV in 2020. In a year when I needed some escapism I got to travel to a galaxy far, far away, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Review of 2020 - the Jaffa Cake Comparison Project

During 2020 some lockdown snaffling went on in the name of research. I present the results for your information. If it helps guide your future purchasing choices, then let me know.

First off, the packet that started me on this culinary comparison quest. These were on a 50p introductory offer in Asda.

Brand: McVities
Product: Jaffa Cakes
Flavour: Pineapple
Verdict: Tasted very much like those old school pineapple cubes sweets, with a zingy aftertaste. The cake bit was the usual soft high standard McVities base. These were very  nice. Further packets were bought.

I was then tipped off that Polish supermarkets are a good place to source different flavours of Jaffa Cakes. So off I went to my local Polish supermarket, Delikatesy MIŚ, where I was not disappointed.

Brand: Moja Bajka Delicje Szampanskie
Product: Jaffa Cakes
Flavour: Cherry
Verdict: These were excellent quality and the cherry flavour was really nice. This one has been a repeat purchase.

Brand: Moja Bajka Delicje Szampanskie
Product: Jaffa Cakes
Flavour: Apricot
Verdict: Same high quality, but not as flavoursome as the cherry ones. They were nice and I'd eat them again if offered. 

I branched out a bit into other Jaffa Cakes offerings. Cathy bought me these to try:

Brand: McVities 
Product: Cosmic Cake Bars
Flavour: Orange
Verdict: These were nice. A solid bar of Orange jelly ran the length of the cake, which was soft sponge and purple!

I also gave these Olympic-branded ones a go.

Brand: McVities
Product: Mini Rolls
Flavour: Orange
Verdict: These were a bit sweet and less tangy than the cake bars, but overall a decent snack. Good flavour and soft sponge.

I found a few more brands to try. These came from Home Bargains I think.

Brand: Milka
Product: Jaffa Cakes
Flavour: Raspberry
Verdict: The milk chocolate on these was too sickly combined with very sweet raspberry flavour. I wouldn't buy them again.

Another punt from a cheap shop, this time from Poundstretcher:

Brand: Delisana
Product: Jaffa Cakes
Flavour: Blackcurrant
Verdict: These weren't very nice at all. There were two main problems. The base was grainy and crumbly - far too dry for a jaffa cake. And the Blackcurrant flavour tasted medicinal, like throat lozenges. I didn't finish the packet.

And a gamble on a known orangey brand, purchased in The Range.

Brand: Tango (made by Huntley & Palmers)
Product: Jaffa Cakes
Flavour: Orange
Verdict: These were very disappointing. The topping was quite nice, although not as powerful as you'd expect from a Tango-branded product. (It wasn't a taste sensation!) But the base was dry and granular like the Delisana ones. This was another packet that I didn't bother finishing.

I also saw this for sale in The Range.

I did not buy it.

My friend Terri warned me against trying the McVities strawberry flavoured Jaffa Cakes, but for the sake of completeness, I thought I should give them a go. I was pleasantly surprised.

Brand: McVities
Product: Jaffa Cakes
Flavour: Strawberry
Verdict: Despite hearing a negative review, these were alright. Bit sweet, but not bad at all.

In the run up to Christmas, this festive flavour appeared.

Brand: McVities
Product: Jaffa Cakes
Flavour: Orange & Cranberry
Verdict: These were really nice. They tasted Christmassy, but they didn't last until Christmas. To be honest they barely lasted 24 hours before the packet was empty.

Everyone has their own way of eating Jaffa Cakes. I'm a bit like this:

So, in conclusion, these are my top three recommendations:

In third place, is the festively flavoured Orange & Cranberry from McVities.

In second place, we have the cherry flavoured Polish jaffa cakes.

And in number one spot, the packet that kicked the whole project off, the Pineapple flavoured jaffa cakes by McVities.

If you spot some jaffa cakes you think should be reviewed, feel free to send them to me. Who knows what flavours we might discover in 2021!