Friday, August 27, 2021

Analog collector in an increasingly digital collecting world

Earlier this year, Topps, the company that currently has the sole license to produce official Major League Baseball cards, launched NFT trading cards. These are "virtual" uncopyable images that can be transferred a bit like cryptocurrency. There's all sorts of lingo that goes along with this like "blockchain" and so on. Digi wonks go nuts for this sort of thing.

This has made me realise that I am an analog boy at heart because I have zero interest in this. To me, it has as much appeal as collecting "baseball cards" by right-clicking save on a Google image search.

Topps apparently get 20% of any sell on fees so every time this gets sold on they get a cut. I can see the appeal although people sell them on eBay to circumvent the official system and avoid the fees. A card can change hands multiple times during its lifetime. The idea that every time it's sold on the manufacturer get a percent cut is a corporate executive's dream.

On the same day that Topps launched their digital cards, a packet of real baseball cards arrived in the post. I'd bought them off eBay and really enjoyed looking through them. I appreciate the tactile feel of cards 'in hand', feeling the different kinds of cardboard, the different finishes, spotting blemishes and imperfections.

I even don't mind cards that have been "loved" and have slightly worn edges and corners. Those cards have a history to them. They have character. I try to take good care of my cards, but I have added a bit of "character" to some of them, myself. 

The digital replacement movement is pernicious. This month I have been going to a lot of football matches (going while I can - who knows if another lockdown is coming!) and on three occasions the clubs have offered a virtual programme instead of a printed one. It's not the same thing. 

A printed programme is a tangible souvenir of an event - a record that something happened that acts a reminder when you see it. A PDF on a hard drive is a poor, ersatz alternative. You can't idly flick through it while waiting for the kettle to boil. 

(I was very pleased when I watched a game at Pontypridd Town this week to discover the club have reverted from virtual to physical programmes!)

I feel okay about realising I'm an analog collector. That's just me being me. Although it does mean I need to find room for all the stuff I acquire!

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Mining the myths - modern takes on the Norse pantheon

I've recently finished reading The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris, which is one of several books I've read over the past decade that have expanded on Norse mythology. It was a bit strange reading the book concurrently with watching the Marvel series called Loki on Disney Plus. It's a credit to Tom Hiddleston, the eponymous antihero, that I picture him when I'm reading a completely different book about Loki, the Norse god not the Marvel character. 

The other books I've read are Ragnarok by A.S.Byatt, which I blogged about back in 2012, and Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, which I thought I had blogged about previously, but obviously I didn't get around to it. I'll also chuck in American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which takes members of the Norse pantheon and relocates them to the USA where they struggle to get by on the new continent because of a lack of believers. (I can't locate my copy, which is why it isn't in the picture.)

And then there is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes the three Thor movies and the six-part Loki series, plus Thor and Loki have key roles in the various Avengers movies. Loki is central to Avengers Assemble as Thanos's agent to steal one of the Infinity Stones while Thor's character development, as he struggles to adjust to life after Asgard and failing to defeat Thanos, is one of the most memorable elements in Avengers Endgame, which capped off the first multi-movie arc of the MCU.

So, a brief synopsis of the source material


Thor, Odin, Loki and the other characters from the Norse myths are actually superpowered beings with various magical powers and abilities from a different world or plane of existence (I'm not exactly sure which it is meant to be). In this universe Thor and Loki are brothers, the sons of Odin, except Loki is actually adopted. Although the Thor films are meant to be about Thor, he's a bit of a dull character initially and Loki steals the show. Which is fitting as he is the trickster god. Loki's story continued this year with the release of a six part TV series on Disney Plus, which introduced a range of 'variant' versions of Loki from different timelines, leading into a multiverse scenario that will be the centrepiece of the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Myth-mining - borrows names, character traits and some of the mythic storylines, such as the end of the gods at Ragnarok for one of the films, and recasts them within a science fiction comic book universe. If there was anyone who took the mythos seriously, Marvel would be getting complaints about cultural appropriation.

The Gospel of Loki

This retells the various Norse myths from the perspective of Loki who is, as expected, an unreliable, dishonest narrator who blatantly positions himself as the wronged victim. The various gods are portrayed as clueless and vain, obsessed with power and prestige and unwilling to share their wealth with anyone else. There is some depth to the world that Joanne Harris creates, with runes carrying magic and therefore being the tools by which the gods can create and some other contemporary touches to how the characters interact. 

Myth-mining - this stays relatively true to the source material, injecting humour into the stories as Loki tries to explain his mischief was actually quite funny, if only the other gods were intelligent enough to get the jokes. 

Neil Gaiman's books

Norse Mythology is a fairly straight retelling of the Norse myths in contemporary English. It does exactly what it says on the cover. I found it a dull read, which surprised me because Gaiman's work is usually anything but dull. American Gods meanwhile, has versions of the Norse gods seeking to establish themselves in America, against the tidal wave of new gods being created in American culture. Within this framework, Odin is a wily conman, Loki is a similarly shifty lowlife, Thor has committed suicide and Baldur has forgotten who he is. Other gods from other old world mythologies are also surviving in the shadows of the new American cities, imported to the new world with their believers who emigrated there (or were taken against their will). The Norse gods are the old world gods who have been there the longest, arriving with the Viking adventurers that discovered Vinland and then clinging on in a liminal existence ever since. The book concludes with an epic battle between the old world gods and the American gods.

Myth-mining - As a straight retelling, Norse Mythology is as close to pure Norse myth as could be imagined. American Gods, however, develops the characters in unusual ways but with a solid basis in the original myths - Norse, African, Egyptian, Eastern European and others. 


The premise of this book is someone writing about how they discovered the Norse myths and how those myths got them through tough times as a child, when they thought the world was ending. It was a very clever vehicle for retelling the myths and exploring their psychological impact and appeal. There is also an essay in the book that tries to draw some life lessons from the stories and make them relevant to current issues, particularly drawing a parallel between the impending doom of Ragnarok, that the gods knew was imminent yet were powerless to prevent, and the damage being caused to the world's climate that similarly seems to have powerful people acting obliviously and ignoring the predictions of catastrophe. That really stuck with me as an illustration. 

Myth-mining - The stories are retold faithfully, while intertwined with original material, which helps make them more real and important. 

The conclusion

I don't think it's coincidental that these writers and creatives are drawn to using these myths in their own work. The stories of the Norse gods are stories about how wielding power contains within it self-destruction, how trying too hard to preserve something hastens its loss, and how actions that seemed like a good idea at the time often have unintended consequences. The gods respond to the threat of Fenrir, the wolf destined to swallow the moon, and seek to neutralise the threat, which only drives Fenrir further down a path of madness and destruction. Odin hoards knowledge, worried what will happen if it gets into the wrong hands, only to find that the other gods embark on courses of action that are damaging anyway. 

These are all powerful, seminal themes. Love, hate, pride, ignorance, valour, courage, selfishness, heroism, nihilism, betrayal, honesty, and many more very human traits. The "gods" in this fiction are just humans writ large, which is why we can learn from them. That's probably why these story-tellers feel it is worth retelling these tales. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Snack of the Month - Crispello

This is a bit of an odd one. A Cadbury's branded product, made in Egypt, imported into Europe by a Dutch company and sold in a discount shop (B&M Stores). Cathy found this while looking for something else and thought I might like to try it. She was right. 

The "crisp" in Crispello is apparently some kind of biscuit, although it had the crunchy consistency of puffed rice. There's a slight salty tang to it that offsets the sweetness of the chocolate really nicely.

The bar is composed of 4 decent-sized pieces which makes it easy to break into bits to share. If you want to share, that is. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't!

Made in Egypt...eatcn in Cardiff.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

When religions copy strategy

Recently we have had some Islamic 'tracts' pushed through our letterbox. Over the years we have often had Christian material delivered, but Islamic leafleting feels new (although we did have some last year, which I blogged about). It makes me wonder if whoever is distributing these Islamic tracts has seen Christians doing it and thought it would be a good idea to emulate. 

There was a particular design choice that caught my eye on one of the most recent leaflets. It stood out for two reasons. Here's the leaflet in question:

It was the little dude with a big red question mark. Firstly, I'm pretty sure that is a stock piece of clip-art. It looks like the kind of thing that features in bad PowerPoints. But secondly, the red question mark is a key design component of the Christian evangelism course called Alpha. That really does feel a little bit like trading on another religion's prosetylisation tool.

In answer to the rhetorical questions, the answer is 'No, not really.' But, if I had wondered, there was a QR code on the back that would connect me to a website where I could "Ask a Muslim" any questions I had. I am a bit curious to know whether anyone activates the QR code - that's trackable and could inform us whether anyone responds to getting a religious tract through the door. Ever. 

This tract didn't come alone. It also came with this list of instructions from God to humanity lifted from the Qur'an. The QR code on the back of this one would have taken me to an online version of the Qur'an. (Would that make it the QRan?)

Some of the instructions aren't particularly direct. It felt to me that they had decided they needed to have 50 and then were stuck trying to reach that number. Maybe 50 is an important number in Islam. I honestly can't recall hearing that before though. Or perhaps they are trying to be five times better than religions that only have ten commandments?

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Football nerdery data representation

When I was studying Business Psychology I briefly got sidetracked onto a tangent about the psychology of collecting (blogged here). I think that offers a good insight into why some people obsessively go to football matches - often called 'groundhopping'. It's a collecting impulse. 

People who go to a lot of football matches in a lot of different places tend to keep some sort of record of it, for example, in an Excel spreadsheet (I do this), or using an app created to help them, like the Futbology App (which I use regularly).

As an aside, Futbology was originally called Groundhopper, but apparently that had less of a cachet to it than the developers had hoped, so they changed the name.

The problem is if you have all this data, what do you do with it? Futbology has a neat feature where you can review your personal stats, looking at all the different grounds you have been to, and a list of all the clubs you have seen. But that only goes so far, and like a spreadsheet, it's not that exciting to look at.

I used the list of teams I've seen to update my Top 10 Table of teams that I have seen. I previously did this up to the end of the 2017 season and a lot has changed since then. This is my current top 10, up to the end of the 2020-21 season.

The big new entrant since the last time I posted a table is Barry Town, who weren't even in the top ten back in 2017. They are now second in the table, usurping Cardiff City, although I have seen the Bluebirds 18 times since I published my previous top ten. The New Saints are also new entries and are going to climb the table as well, given that I've already seen them twice since June!

Tables are all well and good, but I also have another project on the go. A long time ago, before we were married, even, Cathy gave me a 'Book of Days' as a present. 

These are handy books that you are meant to write birthdays and memorable events in on given dates. I wrote a few in, but then it sat and languished in a drawer for two decades. Then a few years back I decided to go through my lists of football matches and fill in the book with all the games on the date I saw them. The result is something like this.

If you look closely, you will see that a number of those games on the pages shown are international matches because the end of March tends to be an 'International Break' every year. Most of the time I just write the score but sometimes I add in other details, as can be seen on 30 March, where I noted that TNS v Barry was a Welsh Cup semi-final played at Newtown.

It is fun flicking through the pages, remembering games. It's also fun when I get to 'tick off' a day like I did when I saw TNS in a Europa Conference League game at the end of July.

The days either side of that game are still blank. The challenge is on for 2022!

I've also taken the data from the Book of Days and put it into grid format, blacking out all the days that I have seen a match. The result looks a bit like an elongated QR code.

The gaps in the summer months are really noticeable in this data display. That one lone square in the middle of June is the game I went to in Salt Lake City when we were on our road trip around Utah. (Here is a very old blog post about that game!)

Meanwhile, back to the Excel Spreadsheet and one way I arrange my data is games by month. The white gaps in the middle of the above grid is also noticeable in table form, as a large numerical disparity.

I have been to almost 10 times as many games in August as I have in June. Although I do watch a lot of games in June if there is a tournament happening. It's just that tends to be on TV! November and February are the months I'm less likely to go to a live game during the season. February is a short month (although I did manage a five Saturday February just before the world was pandemified back in 2020!). I don't know what November's excuse is.

One of the fun aspects of collecting is arranging and rearranging, cataloguing and organising your collection. Playing around with different ways of displaying the data from intangible collected items is the same impulse. I find a sense of satisfaction from looking at my spreadsheet's many pages, my Book of Days, and the blacked out year calendar, which is akin to looking through a binder of baseball cards, or a full football sticker album. 

The challenge is on to "complete" the year!

Friday, August 06, 2021

Salopian Staycation - July 2021

I know that, technically, a staycation is when you stay in your own house, but surely staying with family for a holiday week is close enough. This was the first time we had stayed with my brother and sister-in-law since they had doubled their children from two to four. Our eldest niece very kindly surrendered her room for us to sleep in. Meanwhile, my sister and her three kids were staying next door in my mum's house, so we had six adults and seven kids roaming around for the week. We needed activities!

There are things to do in Shropshire, but it was only at the end of the week it dawned on me that our big days out were all either in Cheshire or Wales. 

We started the week on the Monday at Chester Zoo. One reason for the trip is because back in January we adopted an Orangutan for my Mum for her birthday. So we went to see the Orangutans and some of the other animals. It was blisteringly hot and most of the animals were being sensible and sheltering in whatever shade they could find. 

But the rhinos weren't bothered by the heat.

One of the tapirs was cooling off in the pool.

Meanwhile the aardvarks were sleeping off a big night in their little house. I found the way this one had his paws in the air really endearing. It was difficult getting a photo through the glass though.

We also got very close to the pack of painted dogs, which thrilled eldest nephew because they are his favourite animal. He's just on the edge of this photo drinking in the sight of these amazing predators. 

The next day we headed to Llanfair Caereinion to take the narrow gauge train back to Welshpool on the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway. We were two members down as second-eldest niece had been admitted to hospital with rapid onset ear pain (which was thankfully resolved later that day!) and my sister naturally was with her rather than jaunting off to Powys with us. 

I thought we had booked the train pulled by a steam loco, but instead we had a diesel hauling the train. However, even diesels have a backstory. This loco was built in Germany for the Taiwan Sugar Corporation, was used on sugar plantations in Taiwan for 25 years and now is pulling tourist trains in mid-Wales.

Our huge party was allocated to the rear coach, which was of a continental design with end balconies. That meant we could ride outside, which was great fun.

We did get to see a steam loco as we passed the train hauled by the Austrian loco, Zillertal, with its typically European smokestack. This loco was originally built in 1900 and is still going strong, over 120 years later!

We had a day off from day trips mid-week. On the Thursday we all got back in the cars and headed back to Cheshire to the Blue Planet Aquarium. 

I think I probably enjoyed it more than the kids. I especially loved the shark tunnels where you can get up close to the fish...

... pretend to pet the rays...

... and just watch the sharks float serenely by.

Then for our last day out of the holiday we went back to Wales and I ticked something off my bucket list. I had never gone across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct before, but now I have. 

We travelled across aboard a narrowboat named after Thomas Telford, the man responsible for the aqueduct. 

It's still a hugely impressive feat of engineering as you soar over the trees and river Dee. 

Pontcysyllte is a World Heritage Site and reminded me of my school history classes about the industrial revolution. The canals opened up Britain and were the pre-eminent technology of a generation, until railways came along and basically put canals out of business. 

And that was the last big day out on our Salopian Staycation, where, ironically, we didn't stay in Salop. 

Monday, August 02, 2021

July 2021 - End of month review

July started with us coming back from a week's holiday on the Lleyn Peninsular in North Wales (see blog posts here), and ended with us on holiday in Shropshire with family from Salop and from Edinburgh. 

There's a cheetah in this card game!

Inbetween these times away, we squeezed in quite a bit.

I came back from our North Wales holiday with a sore throat and sneezing more than usual. Apparently that can be a sign of coronavirus infection in people who have been double-jabbed, so Cathy and I booked appointments at the drive-through test centre at the Cardiff City Stadium. I now feel I have lived the full pandemic experience, now that I have had to stick a swab up my nose! 

Our tests were negative. I was impressed with the organisation of the test centre. Everyone there really knew the drill. They knew we were coming, and processed us through very politely and quickly. We had the results texted to us in less than 24 hours. It was a good experience in a stressful moment.

We also watched the European Championships semi-finals and final. England blew it, is my verdict, with a terrible penalty shoot-out in the final that will potentially have scarred another generation of kids. I mentioned last month how this was the first international championship I have experienced since my Dad died, and after the final I have thought several times about how he would have rung me up to dissect the failure in detail. These are the unexpected moments when grief catches us.

In my other blogging project, I reached a new milstone - 700 baseball cards featuring Tony Gwynn. I feel I am starting to run out of steam a bit with the baseball cards and my blogging has been very gappy of late as the supply of new cards has run out.

It might continue to be gappy, as I have started going to football matches again. I've blogged about my trips to Bristol and Aberdare. I added a third match in the month of July as The New Saints were playing Kauna Zalgiris from Lithuania in a Europa Conference League Qualifying game during our week in Shropshire. As TNS play in Oswestry, just half an hour away, I went with my brother for a fun evening out.

TNS already had a 5-0 lead from the first leg in Lithuania, so I was hopeful we would see some goals. And we did. 

It was a very one-sided affair. Kauno Zalgiris played suicide football, trying to build from the back and repeatedly giving the ball away as TNS played a high press. Several moves broke down in their own half and resulted in TNS having chance after chance to score. There was a Lithuanian guy in front of us and his partner started laughing as me and my brother started shouting 'Nooooo!' as the Kauno defenders set up for another futile attempt to play out from the back. It was cringeworthy to watch. 

TNS won 5-1 on the night, with some superb goals, to cap a 10-1 aggregate win over the two legs.

Spending a week with family also meant there were opportunities for back garden football with an array of smaller people. My eldest nephew is getting pretty good these days - he graduated from his soccer course with three trophies a couple of weeks back. He also hits the ball harder than he used to and his Dad has had to reinforce the back fence, as you can see in this photo!

I will do a summary of our week in Shropshire in a future blog post, although our big days out were actually in Cheshire and Wales, so it will be photos from not-Shropshire in the main.