Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Mundane markers of pandemic life

Mundane marker 1. I emptied the car of rubbish a short while back. It's amazing what accumulates. I chucked four empty bottles of hand sanitizer in the recycling.


Mundane marker 2. Anyone who knew my Dad well knew that he loved camels. Several years back Cathy and I bought a giant brass camel for him. This huge humpbacked critter lived in the big window of the front room of their house for several years, and has now moved with my Mum to her new house. You can always find room for a large decorative camel!

On a recent flying visit to see family I had to pop indoors to use the loo. On my way through the hall I saw the camel was no longer just for decoration. He's got a job guarding my Mum's face masks by the front door!


These are the artifacts of living through a global pandemic. My car detritus is now empty santizer bottles. Camels are now convenient places to hang face masks. These are silly ways that life has changed.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Star Wars Day 2021 - disturbed by the Force



When Star Wars was first released (as Star Wars - the A New Hope title came later), it was a standalone movie. It's well known that George Lucas bothered heavily from storytelling theory and other sucessful movies to craft a self-contained story about a hero plucked from obscurity to rescue a damsel in distress, aided by a magical mentor and two bumbling servants, to triumph against all the odds over the forces of evil. 

In that sense, Star Wars is a perfect film. With ground-breaking special effects and enough fantastical aspects to the plot to keep things interesting, the movie was a massive success. That meant there was a hunger for more Star Wars stories and soon comic books, novels and a now-legendary Holiday Special filled the gaps until the first official sequel movie came out. 

One problem this has caused is the development of a lot of extra material. Sometimes known as 'lore', the extra details found in the books and comics, like the make and model of the spaceship the heroes travel in, and new characters introduced add to the complexity. In addition to the three movies of the "Original Trilogy" were some cartoon series and two spin-off movies featuring the Ewoks who were the cutesy, gutsy additions to the Star Wars universe in Return of the Jedi. These extra creations are now available on Disney Plus. 

Every so often new movies have come out and these have caused problems with various aspects of the 'lore' so that leads discussions about what events and people are 'canon' or not. When Disney bought the rights to Star Wars they ruled that the timeline that had been established after Return of the Jedi was now non-canon, and rebranded it as 'Legends'. They have subsequently relocated established characters, like Grand Admiral Thrawn, in the 'canon'  as characters in TV series.

Some of the books that I really enjoyed reading, like the X-Wing series by Michael A Stackpole, and the stories found in the comic books like Dark Empire, are now in the grey zone of Star Wars Legends, rather than being canon. I have mixed feelings about this. In one respect it doesn't matter. However, it does mean I don't take anything for granted. There are rumours that the most recent sequels are going to get rebooted soon.

But, I have started to grow ambivalent about Star Wars. It stems from working my way through the canon, particularly watching the Clone Wars cartoon series. There are lots of unanswered questions in that series, set 20 years or so before the events of A New Hope, revolving around the Jedi, their role in the Star Wars universe, and whether they are the righteous warriors I was led to believe.

One of the questions I have regarding the Clone Wars, is why are the Jedi automatically generals? Who decided they were equipped to lead? Generally speaking they are terrible at it. Huge numbers of clone troopers die in almost every episode. Too many decisions are made in defiance of orders, which in turn seem to be made for the sake of being made. 

The Jedi are committed to saving the Galactic Republic. So that leads to a deeper question - was the Republic worth saving? Presumably it is meant to be a good thing, but it's a huge bureaucracy and the taxation levels must have been off the charts. The Separatist mistake was having an army of conquest. They would have been better off using their army to protect worlds that joined them and enforce trade routes and so on, because these seem to be the main issues in the Star Wars glaaxy.

Which leads to another question, why are all these planets dependent on outside trade anyway? Planet after planet is under threat during the Clone Wars from blockades. The people of the Republic are routinely shown to be running out of food and medical supplies, and dependent on the hero Jedis turning up and rescuing them. How can people live on these planets without having their own means of production? Presumably at some point each planet was reasonably self-sufficient.

Most of this could just be explained as bad storytelling. But it's the wider arc of the story that has the biggest problems. Specifically, are the Jedi good? Many of the defining features of the Jedi focus on their deliberate attempt to be detached and emotionless. That's a fairly common element in the Clone Wars cartoon series. They are supposed to be peacekeepers and protectors but almost gleefully accepted their roles as generals in the army of the Republic. We never see a big debate about this, or a schism between Jedis who don't see their role as warriors.

I'm not the only person who has started to question the character of the Jedi as presented in the Star Wars films. In this article, 'Hang the Jedi', Jay Allen points out something quite chilling about the introduction of the Jedi in Star Wars.
The first time we ever see the power of the "light side" of the Force is to psychically dominate a security guard. The first time we see a lightsaber in use, it's to maim someone in a bar brawl. It's the "elegant weapon" of a man so feared that his battle cry sends the local people scattering.

Small wonder, given that his apprentice slaughtered those same people indiscriminately and without repercussion.

This man, Obi-Wan Kenobi, pines for a time when he and his brothers roamed the galaxy, meting out their unaccountable rulings as emotionless judges and executioners— when not using their powers to cheat at dice.
That post goes on to point out that the Jedi don't do anything to challenge slavery because it would be 'interfering', or to challenge the domination of sentient machines by organic beings (which is one of the most interesting subplots in the recent film, Solo). There is a good discussion to be had about exactly why the galactic population appears to be illiterate and there is no functioning media. Whose interests does that serve? Why aren't the Jedi champions of education? 

As an aside - there is a school scene in the recent series The Mandalorian and it would appear that schooling is something that has been reintroduced for children following the Galactic Civil War.

Another aspect of the original Star Wars film that deserves a second look is something that is written in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way in this article: The radicalization of Luke Skywalker. There are some good points made in there - particularly about Obi Wan Kenobi telling a version of the truth about his father that is later revealed to be a lie. Kenobi doesn't tell Luke everything he needs to know about the Force, and neither does Yoda, which later in Luke's life and the Star Wars Saga has disastrous consequences when Luke tries to train his nephew as a Jedi. 

So, where does this leave me, as a long term fan of Star Wars? It was a story that brought me hope through wonder when I was a dislocated seven year old, a film that seemed to be imbued with deeper, more spiritual meaning, and ultimately being Star-Wars-without-the-Force was one of the many, many things I found defective about the film Rogue One.

Maybe I've gotten older and more sceptical. I'm not taking as much on faith these days. It seems sensible to question the motivations of those who claim some kind of leadership role, which they might not be suited for, and who claim some kind of deeper knowledge, that comes with its own dark side of deception and desire for power. 

Or maybe I haven't grown up, and I can write a lengthy blog post analysing areas of doubt in something as if it were real and important, because to me it is real and important; it's a certain point of view.

Monday, May 03, 2021

April 2021 End of Month Review

And another month of 2021 has passed. I had a conversation recently with a friend who said that the days feel long but the weeks are flying by. It does feel like that.

April is always one of my favourite months because it has my birthday at the beginning. This year my birthday was on Good Friday so I had the day off work and a long bank holiday weekend to follow it. There are some birthday traditions in our house. We had pancakes for breakfast and I had to wear the birthday crown.

I've blogged about how I spent my birthday building a big Lego model with Cathy


I also got a second big Lego model as a present - everybody say hello to Grogu (Baby Yoda) from The Mandalorian. It was an interesting build. His ears are adjustable so they can look droopy and sad.


The beginning of the month was also the start of the baseball season. I joined in the #OpeningDay selfie fun on Twitter, wearing my retro 1984 Padres World Series shirt and also the Slam Diego t-shirt that commemorated the Padres brief run of Grand Slams last season.


On the subject of baseball, I was also a guest on the Tea & Topps podcast, talking about my collection of Tony Gwynn cards, among other things. If you want to watch and listen then you can do so here.


Ahead of that podcast recording I was asked to create a baseball card of myself they could use in promotional posts. This was the result.



Meanwhile the pandemic restrictions are slowly easing. This meant that we were able to go to Shrewsbury and see my family for the first time since September. My brother's family has grown with the addition of two new children and I met my new niece and nephew for the first time. They are 4 and 3, and both really lovely. 

I also got to play some back garden football with my oldest nephew. He says his favourite player is Harry Kane. He likes to thwack the ball straight at his hapless uncle more than he likes scoring past him. 



We have also been able to meet up with friends, including visiting the back garden of some friends who have moved into a new house, and sitting on the patio of other friends watching their twins being fed dinner. It has felt nice to actually see people, even if meeting up is still a bit weird and stilted. 

Another part of pandemic life is getting vaccinated. I got jabbed in March. Cathy got jabbed in April, with a short-notice invitation. Unlike me, she didn't get to go to Jabs'R'Us down the Bay. Instead we went to Splott.


Scandalously, when she came back to the car after getting jabbed she showed me she had been GIVEN A STICKER! I never got offered a sticker! I was fuming, and pouted all the way home. 

And finally, our addition to our managerie of adopted animals this month was a Painted Dog who lives in the West Midland Safari Park. I'm going to do a blog post about the menagerie at some point. It's filling up with some cute animals. 


So that was April. Roll on May!

Sunday, May 02, 2021

"Common sense" in politics

Something I noticed in the election leaflets we have received in the run up to the Senedd election are appeals to 'common sense'. This was especially noticeable on the leaflet from UKIP, but it also featured in the screed on the Freedom Alliance party leaflet.


Appealing to "common sense" is soundbite politics. Any point of view is made to seem reasonable because it's "common sense". Saying something is common sense means it's obvious, it's what everyone thinks, and by extension, that commonness is because it's correct. "Common sense" is the great leveller. You don't need an education or a deep knowledge of the subject or any grounded experience to know what to do as long as you are following common sense. It's the calling card of the opinionated bore who has an answer for any situation and brooks no follow up questions. 

The appeal to Common Sense fails because it's a form of magical thinking. You don't need to know how these complex systems work - just apply a bit of common sense. With common sense you don't need to understand geopolitics - just send the migrants back. You don't need to understand international trading arrangements, just Vote Leave. You don't need to be aware of how you are being manipulated by shadowy data companies, Facebook keeps telling you that Boris will get Brexit done so vote for him!

I feel like I run up against common sense a lot. I hear people who have never worked in the NHS talking about how to fix it and they are almost always focused on exactly the wrong things. There have been some bold plans laid out in election promises this year. Plaid Cymru and the Tories are seeking to outdo each other on how many new doctors they will get for the Welsh NHS. But nobody asks the questions about whether that is what the NHS really needs. After all, it's common sense. The system isn't working so let's throw more people into it until it does.

Similarly the Conservative solution to congestion on the M4 is to build another motorway. Every traffic expert in the world will tell you that building more roads only increases traffic. 

Common sense provides easy answers to dfifficult problems, and I think that's why people like it. But as a way to make decisions that will affect all our lives, it's disastrous. 

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Senedd 2021 Election Leaflets Review & Ranking

With less than a week to go to the Senedd Election, here is a review of the political literature we have recieved so far. I introduced the scoring template in a preview post, but to recap, parties earn points for SMART goals, the number of leaflets, being bilingual, contact details, candidate photos, and endorsements. Parties are docked points for vague objectives, throwing shade - 1 point per target, photos of politicians from other parties, photos of the area that don't include the candidate, stock photos, and typos. I'm also going to list "pandemic points" as a possible tiebreaker.



As of this post we have received 20 pieces of post so I am going to list them by most leaflets then alphabetical order, which means we start with Labour.


Party: Labour

Number of items: 4. 2 of them are general for the list votes and 2 were from Vaughan Gething, the constuency candidate. Only 2 were bilingual, so 6 points

Quite like this design

SMART goals: 3 points - not many, as the leaflets tended to focus on what "Welsh Labour has delivered" rather than making promises. I like the idea of a new national forest - and that's a measurable goal. We will either have one or we won't.

Contact details: a total of 10 ways to get in touch with either generic Labour or Vaughan himself.

Relevant photos: 10, including lots of Vaughan in the consituency. All 4 regional list candidates had pics. Including the one called Mr Death. (He's never going to be health minister, is he!)

Endorsements: 6 different ones. Vaughan got an endorsement off Lynda Thorne who is one of my local councillors who has been very helpful in the past.

Vague objectives: -7. Including to make Wales "a greener country".

Shade: -2. Main targets are the Tories who get unfavourable comparisons across a lot of policy areas. Plaid Cymru apparently "want to put up barriers to our neighbours just over the border".

Irrelevant photos: 0

Typos: -1

TOTAL = (35-10) = 25. I think this is the most points Labour have ever scored in one of these rundowns. True, they racked up the easy points with the contact details, but overall their literature is a lot more positive than it has been in previous campaigns. If there was more detail to their goals they would have scored even higher.

Pandemic Points: 10! Vaughan Gething mentioned it a lot in his 2 leaflets. But then he is the health minister so I think that's reasonable. 


Party: Liberal Democrats

Number of items: 4. These all came like letters in proper envelopes. We had 2 from the local candidate, Alex Wilson, and 2 from the regional list candidate, Rodney Berman. All 4 mailings were a letter and leaflet, so 8 pieces of literature in total, all bilingual = a whopping 16 points.

Comms note: one of the leaflets is a CV of the candidate, which is quite a nice piece of literature. Given the lack of space I'm not sure why they needed to include his hobby of running a theatre group, though.

#TopTip: Only include necessary information on a CV


SMART goals: 3 - not much really that could be measureable. A lot of space on the regional list leaflets is used up explaining how to vote tactically and "lend your vote" to the Liberal Democrats. 

"Pssst! Lend us a vote, mister..."

Contact details: 3

Relevant photos: 9

Endorsements: 2

Vague objectives: -7. Things like "better schools and hospitals" are laudable, but not specific.

Shade: There's a personal swipe at "our current MS", ie.e. Vaughan Gething, but they don't mention his name. In it's own way that's extra-insulting. Plus "The Conservatives simply don't have the answers for Wales' future" Labour "is a wasted vote", and "Plaid are focusing on consitutional issues ahead of the COVID recovery." While asking Labout voters to lend a vote to them, they say that could have kept UKIP out of the Senedd last time. I'm going to count that as shade too, so the total shade points are -5.

Irrelevant photos: -1 for a stock photo.

Typos: 0

TOTAL = (33-13) = 20, a respectable score

Pandemic Points: 3


Party: Plaid Cymru

Number of items: 4. 2 general ones and 2 for the local candidate, Nasir Adam. All bilingual, so 8 points.

Is it just me, or is this Labour's colour scheme...?

SMART goals: 11. Lots of these including specific numbers. 1000 more doctors for the NHS. 5000 more nurses and other healthcare professionals. 50,000 new homes. And a promise of an Independence Referendum before 2026.

As a note, just because a goal is SMART doesn't actually make it smart. I have grave doubts an extra 1,000 doctors could be recruited in just 5 years.

Contact details: 4

Relevant photos: 10 - lots of photos on Nasir in action including on a community litter-pick wearing a t-shirt that riffs on the cover of Straight Outta Compton by NWA. An interesting photo choice. Judging by these leaflets, Plaid have one approved photo of party leader Adam Price, which must appear on all their literature. Just that one photo.No others.

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: -10. Lots of aspirational stuff like "a fair deal for families". What does that even mean?

Shade: The thing about encouraging tactical voting is that you end up throwing shade on parties by just saying they can't win. That's said about the Greens and the Lib Dems. Generally though they don't really go after anyone. -2 points.

Irrelevant photos: 3 stock photos! -3 points. 

Typos: It's not a typo but on the leafelets from Nasir, he lists 4 pledges on one leaflet and 3 pledges on another leaflet and the pledges are different. So I'm going to ding a point for inconsistency. -1

TOTAL = (33-16) = 17

Pandemic Points: 1



Party: Conservative Party

Number of items: 2 bilingual leaflets = 4 points.

SMART goals: 5. Promises of 1,200 more doctors but only 3,000 extra nurses. 5,000 more teachers and lots of big new roads, all heading out of Wales, incidentally. Also a very cunningly phrased promise about council tax - constituency candidate Leighton Rowlands will "vote to fund a council tax freeze".

Contact details: 2

Relevant photos: 3

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: -5, including "more police on our streets". How many more?

Shade: Just the one reference to Labour failing Wales before the pandemic. -1 point.

Irrelevant photos: -5. Stock photos of policemen, a hospital, a motorway.

Typos: 0

TOTAL = 14-11 = 3 points

Pandemic Points: 1


Party: Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party

Number of items: 1 (saes yn unig)

SMART goals: 0, unless you count the name of the party

Contact details: 0

Relevant photos: 0

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: Do we count hashtags? #SaveWales #SavetheUnion. They reckon a vote for them will bring about one education system, one health service and one government. No real detail on what that would look like. I'm going to give them -2 for the hashtags.

Shade: This leaflet doesn't say anything beyond slogans.

Irrelevant photos: 2 stock photos, one of the Senedd with a red cross through it and a landscape. -2 points

Typos: 0

TOTAL = (1-4) = -3

Pandemic Points: 0


Party: Freedom Alliance 

(This appears to be some kind of anti-Lockdown party. There are also are a few conspiracist-tinged phrases in their literature, like "the current political structure and its controllers".)

Number of items: 1 (saes yn unig, although it does say "For the love of Cymru vote for freedom")

SMART goals: I guess "no lockdowns, no curfews" could be measureable. A generous 2.

Contact details: 3, including a QR code.

Relevant photos: 1 photo of the constituency candidate, Alan Golding.

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: This whole screed is a vague objective, starting with "a new way of doing politics is needed". Alan promises to return Wales to a position "where people matter more than our politicians". This will be through "honest conversations" and asking "difficult questions that need to be asked". To be honest by the time I got to the appeal to "common sense solutions", I had checked out. However, a quick run through brought me to a tally of 19 vague objectives. A new record. 

Shade: All other policial parties and "career politicians". And their controllers too I guess. I'm going to just give -1 point as he is the only candidate to throw shade on the controllers. 

Irrelevant photos: 0

Typos: 0

TOTAL = (7-20) = -13

Pandemic Points: doesn't actually mention the pandemic, despite claiming "Lockdowns have plunged the Uk into unimaginable debt, caused a national mental health crisis, devastated our children's education, and have been directly responsible for many avoidable deaths from cancer, heart disease and suicide." Still, 0 pandemic points. 


Party: Independent (David Rolfe)

Number of items: 1 (saes yn unig) - the smallest leaflet received so far.


SMART goals: There was no room for any on the leaflet.

Contact details: 4

Relevant photos: 1, of the man himself, David Rolfe.

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: David listed 3 bullet points, but with no details, they all count as vague objectives so -3 points.

Shade: David claims to be "An independent voice among the political chaos of mainstream parties" but he doesn't actually throw shade on anyone. 0 points.

Irrelevant photos: 0

Typos: there's a word missing in the legally required text on the leaflet. -1

TOTAL = (6-4) = 2


Party: Propel

Number of items: 1 bilingual leaflet = 2 points

SMART goals: "We will end Welsh lockdowns". OK. Well I guess that's measurable. It also mentions that Propel candidates have signed a "Contract with Wales" to introduce 10 Acts in the Welsh Parliament. The leaflet invites me to look them up online, but I'm not really that invested. So there may be details there that would turn them into SMART goals. I'm only giving 1 point though.

Contact details: 3 social media channels

Relevant photos: 1, of leader Neil McEvoy. And his signature. Which potentially gives graphologists a deeper insight into Neil's personality.

Don't need to ask for his autograph

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: the summary of the Contract with Wales lists 4 vague objectives. There is another vague objective listed as part of their proposed Coronavirus Recovery Act. So a total of -5.

Shade: Nothing. 

Irrelevant photos: 1 landscape stock photo, so -1

Typos: 0

TOTAL = (7-6) = 1

Pandemic Points: 0


Party: Reform UK 

(This used to be the Brexit Party)

Number of items: 1 (saes yn unig)

SMART goals: The one measureable goal is to halve the number of councils in Wales from 22 to 11. They are also promising no more full scale lockdowns. 2 points.

Contact details: 3 social media channels

Relevant photos: 2. There's a photo of the local consituency candidate Alan Pick, and one of party leader Nathan Gill (who was previously elected to the Senedd as a UKIP candidate and then quit that party).

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: They want to reform a lot of things but don't say how. I counted 5 vague objectives.

Shade: They accuse Welsh Labour of keeping children out of schools without good reasons. Otherwise, they use a good chunk of the leaflet to claim that 50% of people don't vote in Welsh elections so seem to be trying to cultivate people who don't vote rather than steal voters off other parties. So that's just the 1 shade point for the Welsh Labour reference.

Appealing to people who normally can't be arsed

Irrelevant photos: 0

Typos: 0

TOTAL = (8-6) = 2

Pandemic Points: 0


Party: UKIP

Number of items: 1 (saes yn unig)

SMART goals: They want a referendum to scrap the Senedd. They also want to cut alcohol duty and scrap business rates for small companies. I'm going to give them 3 points.

Contact details: 0

Relevant photos: 6 of their list candidates and Neil Hamilton who is the party leader (and is beginning to look like the Emperor Palpatine), so 7 points in total.

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: Lots of comments like "UKIP Stands against the knee-taking cultural vandals who want to erase Wales' history by removing statues to its fallen heroes." Talk about fighting imaginary enemies. 

Culture warriors screaming at clouds

There's other stuff too like ending illegal immigration and funding the NHS instead of sending foreign aid, which has echoses of the lies told during the Leave campaign about all that money that could be spent on the NHS and which then disappeared. I counted 9 vague objectives.

Shade: Lots of it. The Tories and Reform UK "are desperate to keep their snouts in the trough", the Abolish the Assembly Party weren't nasty enough to displaced people in a migrant camp, Mark Drakeford "cosies up to Plaid Cymru who want to destroy the UK and drag Wales back into the EU." They mention the EU a few times. It's clearly a bogeyman for them. The only people they don't mention are the Liberal Democrats, which must be quite upsetting for them in a way. -5 points.

Irrelevant photos: 0

Typos: 0

TOTAL = (11-14) = -3

Pandemic Points: 0


Party: Worker's Party

Number of items: 1 bilingual leaflet, so 2 points

SMART goals: 1 (free bus travel for kids)

Contact details: 3

Relevant photos: 4. (3 photos of the people I think are the named candidates and 1 of George Galloway, party leader, who is also on the regional list.)

Endorsements: 0

Vague objectives: 8, at least. But a lot of statements that aren't anything, like, for example: "There should be no homelessness in Wales... Affordable housing projects are not affordable for normal people." There's no actual commitment to do anything.

Shade: there's a swipe at "big business" but no mention of any other parties. 0.

Irrelevant photos: 0

Typos: 0

TOTAL = (10-8) = 2

Pandemic Points: 1


And that, dear readers is it, for now. Well done if you have made it this far. Hopefully you will get your strength back in time to vote on Thursday.