Saturday, December 31, 2022

December 2022 - stepping into Christmas

December is a month dominated by Christmas and the build up to it. This photo of one of my nephews made me laugh. I feel like doing this sometimes!

My December started with the sad occasion of attending the funeral of Glyn Price on the 1st December. Glyn was a well known Shrewsbury Town fan, podcaster and fanzine editor. I had sat close to him and had a nice chat with him at the Cheltenham away game on 1st October. A couple of weeks later he announced he had been diagnosed with cancer and 5 weeks later he passed away. 

My brother, Dave, took Glyn's funeral, at Glyn's request. The hall at Barnabas Church in Shrewsbury was packed with well over 300 people attending, including representatives from the football club. There were lovely tributes to him from family, his work colleagues, and his fellow fans. It was a sad start to the month. 

Going to the Shrewsbury game the Saturday after the funeral was slightly surreal. I saw Shrewsbury beat Lincoln City for the second time in the calendar year. A few days later I was wearing my blue and yellow bobble hat to Barry's game against Cwmbran Celtic in proper "big coat weather". It was the start of a sustained period of cold weather that did for the next few fixtures for Barry. 

Being in Shrewsbury for a few days at the beginning of December meant I finally visited the new Salopian Models shop. The proprietor was selling off some Games Workshop items, so I added some Tau Empire Stealth Suits to my ever growing 'pile of shame' of unbuilt models. 

Still that's something for me to do in 2023! I've also added an expansion pack for Dungeon Bowl and a star player for my Blood Bowl team of giant rats this month. So the pile of shame is as large as ever.

We had a nice Saturday in Monmouth in the middle of the month, meeting up with Cathy's uncle and aunt. We discovered a lovely toy shop, where I bought myself a wooden train that is meant to be a British Rail Class 07. I couldn't resist the vintage 1970s blue and classic British Rail logo. 

That train actually kickstarted something for me as it was my first "Toy of the Day" post on Instagram. I've decided to revive my Insta to post a picture of a toy of the day every day until I run out of toys in my house, or until I get bored. 

We were back in Shrewsbury for Christmas, staying with my Mum and her cheeky hound, Fred. 

We travelled up on Christmas Eve, with a traffic-free clear run that is a contender for best journey up to Shrewsbury in a long while. I went with Dave for our traditional Christmas Eve pint in the pub followed by the midnight communion service at the Anglican Church.  On Christmas Day we had Christmas Dinner next door in the new big kitchen that Dave and Esther (my sister-in-law) have had built. It was a lovely meal and time together.

We stayed for a few days after Christmas as well, which meant we could see some friends and have fun with the Shropshire-based nieces and nephews. As Christmases go, it was a nice relaxing break and a good way to see out what has been a very busy year.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

A Hoggy Happy Christmas

The blog mascots - the Pantpert Hogs - wish you a very merry Christmas. 

The "boys" like to dress up for various occasions and Christmas is no exception.

It's been a busy couple of days. I went to two services so I have some more carols to add to that particular audit. Post has been disrupted by strikes and we seem to have had fewer Christmas cards than last year. But the annual audit is coming...

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Snack of the Month - we're going to eat the zoo, zoo, zoo

My final "Snack of the Month" for 2022 is a packet of cute animal-shaped biscuits that make up the "Leibniz Zoo". These are another Snack of the Month that was sourced by Cathy, who nabbed the last bag on the shelf in our local Lidl. 

The cute giraffe on the front caught her eye. Packaging design for the win!

There's a cute design on the back along with a recommendation for deer snacks - which is a tenuous enough link to Christmas to make this a seasonal snack!

There is a decent volume of bite-size biscuits in the bag. I was reasonably impressed by how many were in there. 

And the variety of shapes was impressive too. A proper zoo of creatures, including ducks! This is one of each type - but there were three or four of most of them. The duck was the rarest as the one in the picture was the sole one in the bag. There were lots of horses. 

As plain biscuits go, these were nice. They tested like a more buttery version of a rich tea biscuit. They weren't very sweet and they were good dunked in tea.

I won't be rushing back to the zoo, having tried these once. But I did really like the rhino biscuit - here's a close up to close the review!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

More religious marketing

We had some leaflets through the letterbox this week (nicely wedging the letterbox open when it was below freezing outside!) including this small one-sided leaflet that piqued my interest.

I find religious marketing interesting, and this in particular caught my attention because of the level of knowledge it assumes recipients will have about what it is promoting.

I presume this leaflet was a mass delivery rather than targeted, as it arrived alongside a leaflet for a roofer. Given that, I feel quite comfortable dissecting it because its not as if anyone thought "I know who would be interested in this" and sent it to me.

Also, I'm not mocking the event. If people want to spend 10 hours praying, starting at 8am in the morning on a Saturday, then they are free to do that all day. I'm sure there are worse activities people could spend 10 hours doing.

But having said that, I'm curious about the thought patterns of the people who have paid to have this printed and distributed. What is a 10 Hour Watchman Prayer? Are we supposed to just know that? Who is the Watchman? What is he praying for? There is no clue provided here.

It's teaser marketing. I could Google all this or look at one of the many social media channels included on the leaflet. But there's no call to action to find out more or discover why I should spend 10 hours praying on a Saturday in January.

That's assumption 1 - that I would know what this is all about without needing an explanation. 

Assumption 2 is that I recognise the name Mike Lakoju. Is Mike meant to be a big draw? I feel I'm supposed to recognise his name and think "I want to go an pray for 10 hours with him!" But I have no idea (sorry Mike) and this leaflet gives me no clue why I should have an idea, or even why he is important enough to have his face on the flyer.

Except it says Pst. I interpret that as meaning Pastor, because clearly they didn't have enough space to write the word out in full. However, that's another assumption that people would know that. It's not like 'Rev' being short for Reverend, which I think would be more commonly understood. 

The way it's written it's almost like they're whispering a secret - "Pssst! With Mike Lakoju!" 

There's also a dropped capital letter in the name of the church. Usually St John gets a capital letter on Evangelist, as it's part of his name. (There are other St Johns, like St John the Baptist.) That typo isn't going to influence my decision whether to go and spend 10 hours praying with Pst. Mike (because I wasn't going to go) but it's just another aspect of this marketing that feels less than optimal.

I'm curious how many people will turn up to this event after having the leaflet pushed through their door. (I'm not curious enough to go along to the event, though!) If I was going to predict how many people will come along as a result of this, I'd be surprised at one.

Reviewing this leaflet has been a good exercise in reminding me of good marketing practice. Firstly, identify a target audience. Explain who you are and your CV - why people should make an effort to attend your event. Make it clear what you want people to do and what benefit they will get from it. And include a call to action - in this case a 'come and join us' would do.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Winter Village Sideboard

A new location for our Lego Winter Village this Christmas. Cathy cleared the sideboard in the dining room.

Santa's workshop is in the middle of the Village.

The gingerbread houses are on the west side.

While the elf clubhouse is on the east side, next to the train line.

We have added in a few bonus little sets that we've acquired over the years, like some Christmassy market stalls and lots of decorated trees. They make the village look bustling and busy.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Improving the World Cup

We are now at the sharp end of the World Cup. In my blog post summing up November I mentioned that I'm not fully engaging with it. There are several reasons, but the overarching theme is that it's an egregious example of "sportswashing" by an undemocratic authoritarian regime. 

My personal protest about the World Cup is boycotting collecting the football stickers, although I have been given a sticker of the Wales team (thanks Clare!)

So, obviously a major improvement would be less corruption, no more blatant profiteering by the grifters in charge at FIFA, and a tournament where football comes first instead of being co-opted into a crass money-making scheme. Well, I can dream.

But away from the institutional level changes, what about the way the World Cup is structured? 

This World Cup was weakened from the start by having a laughably uncompetitive host nation playing in it. My fellow Barry fan, John, suggested a solution to me last week as we prepared to watch Barry play Cwmbran Celtic. (I'm not sure whether this was John's own idea or if he heard it from someone else, but I heard it from him so I'm going to give him the credit.)

John's suggestion was to introduce a team composed of players from teams that didn't qualify for the World Cup. The all-star team would play off against the host nation for the right to compete in the World Cup as the "FIFA World XI". I think Qatar would have struggled to beat such a team. 

I like this idea. Having the wild card World XI would mean that incredibly talented players who just happen to play for smaller nations who rarely or never qualify could appear in a World Cup. There are plenty of players for whom this would have been a great opportunity. Wales have had several world class talents over the years who never had the privilege of playing at a World Cup. 

A different possibility would be for each team to start the competition with a smaller squad, say just 18 players. After the group stages, half the teams are eliminated. The players from the eliminated teams get put into a "draft". The qualifying teams pick players in order of the teams' world ranking prior to the tournament. They pick 3 players each and can use them in the next round. Meanwhile, the rest of the players go home.

After the round of 16, the players from the eight eliminated squads go into a draft and are eligible to be picked again, with teams picking two players each. After the quarter-finals, players from the four eliminated teams are put into the draft again and the semi-finalists can all pick one extra player to take their squad up to 24 for the semi-final and final.

This means that stand-out players from smaller nations have a realistic chance of a winners medal. Admittedly a player could play for a team that was eliminated in the group stages, get drafted to a team that lose in the round of 16, get picked again for the quarter-finals and play in a losing team again, and then get picked by one of the semi-finalists. 

As long as the fourth team the player played for won a semi-final and the final, they would be a World Cup winner, despite potentially being on the losing side five times in the competition. I would find that darkly amusing, which makes it worth doing.

It would also benefit weaker nations that get out of the group stages and progress - imagine if Australia had been able to add Kevin de Bruyne to their team, or if Croatia had been able to draft Richarlison after they knocked Brazil out. 

I think it would also break down some of the nationalistic hubris surrounding international football. FIFA makes a big thing about the 'football family' and how football brings people together. Turning international football into intra-national football would really bring that about. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Birds, bees and boars

The build up to Christmas in Cardiff includes the opening of the 'red and white' stalls in the city centre. One of our favourite stalls features the ceramic creations of Sian Davies.

We have bought several of Sian's lovely characters over the years and this year we have added a few more to our collection. Here are our new arrivals. 

The penguin might end up in with our Christmas ornaments, but the others are year-round companions. I was particularly taken with the spotty pig. We already had a pink pig and a black pig, but we didn't have a spotty one, so he had to come home with us!

You can see more of Sian's work on her Instagram or like her page on Facebook. (I'm not on commission - I'm just a fan!)

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

November 2022 - a month in review, part 2: Occasions

November was a very busy month, including the loss of Cathy's Grampy, Jim. (See the month in review part 1.)

November is Cathy's birthday month, and with her birthday falling on a Saturday this year, we made a full day of it, starting with pancakes at McDonald's for breakfast. We then went to Cowbridge for a wander around and lunch - where I had pancakes again! Then in the evening we went to the Wales Millennium Centre to watch My Fair Lady

We went with June and Terri, but June was distracted during the pre-show selfie!

The show was very good, although there was a big delay midway through the first half because the revolving scenery stopped revolving and the unmistakeable burning smell associated with a blown motor was very apparent. The cast seemed to cope well with having a set that didn't spin any more, and there was some energy in the second half as it looked like they had to improvise some routines.

At the end of the month, we became godparents again - our third time. I made the joke that this meant I was The Godfather part III. This time it was in a Catholic church, which means I've now become a Catholic, Anglican, and non-denominational godfather. I am an exercise in ecumenism.  

Our latest godson (they've all been boys so far) is Herbert, son of Tom and Helena. Tom was a regular footballing companion when they lived in Cardiff, and I got to know Helena when the three of us were in the same Welsh class together. 

Midway through the month, my new boss started with the team. It has been a tough six months adapting to a new organisation with a much bigger remit and audience than I had in my previous job. I'm hoping that now our programme can start to kick on, having been in a holding pattern over the summer and autumn. 

The same week that my new boss started, I gave a Zoom presentation to the British Thematic Association. I talked about 'philatelic passports' that are issued at stamp shows with the idea that people would go round various stalls and stick in stamps from different countries. I have collected a few of these ever since going to the big Stamp World London exhibition in 1990.

This was the second time I have done a presentation to the BTA. Last year I talked about my collection of stamps that feature the Statue of Liberty.  That presentation is available to watch on YouTube and my latest presentation will be available in a few months' time. (We limit access to presentations to members for a few months.)

And with all that going on, we also saw the start of a bizarrely-timed and controversial World Cup. I was in two minds whether to boycott watching the whole thing, but I am quite weak-willed as it turns out. Plus, Wales qualified - even though they had a very disappointing campaign. 

Despite watching more of the competition than I thought I would, I have been strong and boycotted collecting the football stickers. That has been hard as there has been a cohort of people collecting them in work and an active sticker-swapping group!

In terms of live sport, I only went to three football matches in November, but I did get to go to an international rugby match and an ice hockey game on the same Saturday to chalk up my first ever "two sport twofer"! One of the football matches I went to was the final game of Gavin Chesterfield's 15 year tenure as manager of Barry Town. The 2-1 win for Barry was also the 50th match I've attended at Jenner Park, so a personal milestone as well.

After all that, I'd hope for a restful December, but December is never restful!

Monday, December 05, 2022

November 2022 - a month in review, part 1: Loss

November started with a big loss in our family as Cathy's Grampy, Jim, passed away. We were able to see him in hospital a few days before he died to say goodbye. We had another opportunity to say farewell at the funeral service, which was held on the 21st November in the church in Gloucester he had attended for over 50 years.

I knew most of the stories that were told in the tribute at the memorial service, because Grampy was good at telling stories about his life, often with a humorous twist in them. 

Despite being christened Percival (like my paternal grandfather), he was given the nickname 'Sunny Jim' as a small boy. He introduced himself as Jim all his life. 

Cathy told me that Jim had fought in the Second World War in one of the airborne regiments, but he rarely talked about it. However, later in life he was contacted by a wartime friend and began attending regimental reunions. 

Jim slowly started to talk about his war experiences, including being on Sword Beach on D-Day, and losing his friend from Gloucester who signed up with him and died from mortar wounds. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and later witnessed the liberation of concentration camps.

The extended family all attended the final regimental reunion a few years ago, which included a thanksgiving service at Exeter Cathedral where the regimental standard was officially retired. 

At a reception afterwards, there were some Second World War re-enactors, invited as guests with their vintage weaponry and equipment. Jim saw how one re-enactor was holding a sten gun and told him he would lose a fingertip holding it that way. 

Jim then brusquely took the gun off the young man and adopted the correct position. I watched, unnerved, as the muscle memory laid down decades ago took over and suddenly Jim was in firing stance, holding a gun he clearly still knew how to use. It really brought home to me the way the war he rarely spoke about had shaped him. He also served after the war in Palestine - present in the country when Zionists blew up the King David Hotel that was the British government headquarters at the time - and then briefly in Vienna.

Jim was always very welcoming from the first time I met him when I had just started going out with Cathy, through the many years since. He would always thank me in his broad Gloucester accent for driving over with Cathy to see him. He would always ask me how Shrewsbury Town, and more recently Barry Town, were getting on - although he usually knew already because he kept an eye out for their results. And he was very persistent in trying to feed me cake. (He was frequently successful.)

I grew to love him like another grandparent. Although everyone called him Jim, through Cathy I was also able to call him Grampy, and it was a real privilege to be able to do that.  

I have started to think of grief as the process of remapping the world and we have already started to do that by noticing the gaps. Jim would always ring up on Cathy's birthday to sing 'Happy Birthday' to her. That didn't happen this year, reminding us both of the space that he occupied and has vacated. He will be missed in many other ways and at other times as we remember him.

Friday, December 02, 2022

Subbuteo in the modern era

I don't think this is an improvement! I'm not a fan of VAR (Virtual Assistant Referees).

(This isn't a joke. It's genuinely on sale on Amazon.)

I have a Subbuteo set at home. It's branded for the 1998 World Cup in France. I remember buying it in a sale in WH Smith's for a fiver after the World Cup was over.

I've played it once. Cathy and I had a game. She won. I doubt VAR would have come to my rescue in that game.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Continental oblong Jaffa Cakes

These Jaffa Cakes by Bahlsen were discovered in our local Lidl. I got the last box which had a weird grease stain on the outside. 

The oblong-shaped Jaffa Cakes inside were unaffected, although they were all packaged upside down. 

The cakes had excellent chocolate coverage. It was apparently "messino dark" chocolate, whatever that is. It certainly sounds fancy.

The cake itself was very thin but was reasonably soft. The orange jelly had enough sharpness for the orangey taste to be noticeable even though there didn't seem to be very much jelly in them.

I haven't seen any new festive Jaffa Cake flavours released in the run up to Christmas this year, but this pack more than made up for that lack. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

Two sport twofer!

Last Saturday I managed my latest "twofer". It's always a special day when I get to go to two games and this time it was in two different sports - and neither of them was football!

About a week before, my brother, Dave, messaged me to ask if I had anything planned for Saturday as he had been offered some tickets for the Wales v Australia rugby international at the Principality Stadium (which I still call the Millennium Stadium). I didn't have any firm plans. Dave then decided to make a full day of it and asked if I fancied going to the ice hockey game that was due to start at 7pm. I thought that sounded like a great idea and the "two sport twofer" was on!

I suggested to Dave that he try and get to our house a bit early as rugby traffic can be a nightmare. He arrived late morning, we had lunch and then went to the Stadium. Because it was raining, we decided to go in early, and because the roof was closed and in rugby you can take your drink to your seat, we were able to sit in the dry and watch all the build up.

A friendly steward saw we were trying to take a selfie and offered to take our photo.

There was quite a pre-game show, with marching bands and large choirs performing just about every Welsh themed song you could imagine, from Yma o Hyd through to Sospan Bach, with The Green, Green Grass of Home, Delilah, and Cwm Rhondda along the way.

There was also a significant amount of pyro - the things that look like wheelie bins were actually massive flamethrowers. I didn't get too many photos as they all went off because I filmed a video of most of the display instead.

But you can see all the smoke in the air just as the teams lined up for kick off. A lot of this came from the fireworks that exploded in the roof beams. 

Our seats were near one of the try-lines. We had some good views of attacking line-outs. First for Australia...

...then for Wales, in the second half. 

Wales were winning for most of the match, but Australia came back into the game, Wales ran out of steam and eventually the Aussies won 39-34. The regular fans sitting around us weren't too happy and the consensus of the grumbling was that it was time Wales found a new coach.

Having been lulled into a false sense of dry security being sat in the stadium with the roof closed, going outside into the rain was a shock. We walked down the Taff Trail to the ice arena and got there with almost an hour until face-off between the Cardiff Devils and Coventry Blaze. 

Ice rinks aren't really the place to go to dry off after walking in the rain, but the cafe was warm. We had some food there and sort of semi-dried out. 

We were sat right behind one of the goals. The steward was very friendly, but this time Dave took the selfie without any help. 

We both noticed a very small player in the line up waiting to have their name called out during the introductory line ups. It turned out they were actually the game mascot rather than a member of the roster.

Speaking of mascots, we were next to the 'singing section' of fans. At one point the Devils mascot, Taz, was in the crowd banging a drum and leading the singing. Taz had a shirt with the number 666 on the back, which made me laugh. 

Previously, the Devils mascot was called Lucy Fur, but I think that joke was a bit too clever for most people so now it's Taz like a Tasmanian Devil. 

The game itself was low-scoring. Ot was 1-1 and the end of the first period and the next two periods were completely goalless, despite the Devils having a player advantage at least five or six times as a succession of Coventry players spent two-minute stints in the sin bin. 

As the game went into overtime I texted Cathy to say we might be later back than planned, but barely had I sent the text then Coventry scored the sudden death winner and the game was over. Only 16 seconds of overtime had been played. 

The Blaze players crowded over near where the away fans were cheering to celebrate the win.

The rain had just about stopped so we got home without getting much wetter. We even stopped off in a supermarket on the way home to buy some mince pies. We ate them while watching the World Cup highlights show to round off the sporting day. 

Sunday, November 20, 2022


Cathy coined this phrase when I was complaining about over the top Christmas themed marketing. 

Like Pot Noodle rebranding for the holidays as Pot Noël and promising festive flavours in their cracker shaped gift set.

I'm not having a go at Pot Noodle here. This is reasonably amusing, and at least they've made an effort, however ludicrous.

I was more disappointed with the flimsy box for the "Jaffa Hamper" that McVities is promoting.

It's the thinnest cardboard possible, and while I wouldn't turn down a Jaffa Hamper, it felt a bit cheap.

That is often the way with novelty Christmas packaging - I think everyone realises that. However it's another thing that makes me feel nonplussed with the whole hyped shebang.

This year I've found the seasonal focus on Christmas has really got to me. It's not just that the festive shopping season starts earlier each year, but this year it feels really incongruous. We have the backdrop of rising energy and food costs, a political leadership vacuum, and the despair-inducing slide into irreversible damage to the planet.

And yet, Christmas is marketed at us with a ferocity I haven't felt before. Perhaps because I've never felt so vulnerable. Or it might just be triggering my cognitive dissonance. We are being urged to pretend everything is fun and festive, but I don't feel like joining in the fantasy. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Cheesy cultural appropriation

I saw this for sale recently when I was looking for cheese to add to burgers. I was intrigued so I thought I would give it a go.

I'm pleased to report it worked really well as burger cheese in a cheeseburger. But there is a little nagging feeling that this is cultural appropriation of some kind - especially since this "Welsh rarebit" cheese was made in Leicestershire!

Rarebit has been a Welsh staple dish for so long that a joke about Welsh people eating toasted cheese is in an Elizabethan era joke book that Shakespeare seems to have used as one of the many sources he borrowed from. 

The joke is that at a Welsh wedding there were ten cooks because each guest toasted their own cheese. Those hilarious Elizabethans!

Anyway, Tesco has brought Welsh rarebit into the modern era of packaged sliced cheese. I liked it. I'll probably buy it again despite my misgivings about this culinary cultural appropriation.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Quack of the Month!

On a recent trip to the Knap in Barry, Cathy and I saw this very pretty white mallard duck.

Photo: Cathy

We also heard it because she* had a loud, persistent quack! Definitely our Quack of the Month!

*I am reliably informed by expert-in-all-things-duck Cathy, that only lady ducks quack.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Snack of the Month - sweet cinnamon "chocolate"

Is "white chocolate" really chocolate? That's a question to prompt arguments. Ritter Sport just call this bar "white cinnamon crisp" and leave chocolate out of it. A wise move.


I am a big fan of cinnamon flavoured things. Hot Tamales candy, the Extra Fire gum that Wrigleys used to sell, cinnamon flavoured breakfast cereal, pretty much anything. 

And the cinnamon flavour of these bars is acceptable. However they are also incredibly sweet. And I say that as someone with a high tolerance for sweetness.

Based on the consistency and sweetness it feels like the "crisp" in the cinnamon crisp is cinnamon infused sugar. 

The overall verdict is this is too sweet to eat a whole bar in one sitting, at least on the first go. Maybe by building up tolerance over time I could, but I don't really want to desensitise my palette like that.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Categorising "speculative" fiction

I was in a recent conversation about what classed as 'speculative fiction' and how it was different to science fiction. This followed an observation that when established authors decide to write stories set in the future they prefer to describe it as speculative fiction rather than science fiction. 

To me there is a difference. Speculating on how the world might turn out doesn't necessarily relate to changes in our scientific understanding of the world, which is a cornerstone of science fiction, nor does it depend on the ability of humans to deploy science to push back boundaries.

There was also a question of alternate history (alt-hist), which is also 'speculative', but that seems quite clearly defined already so we can save the term 'speculative' to apply to stories of a possible future instead of a different version of now. 

A suitably spacey photo...

I also divvy up sci-fi into science fiction and space fantasy (also occasionally called 'space opera'). This roughly follows the rules of 'hard' and 'soft' science fiction, although I'm not keen on those distinctions. They are dated and don't really capture the intersections of scientific progress.

The old rule used to be that 'hard' science-fiction bent or changed one rule of science, while in 'soft' science-fiction, pretty much anything goes. Keeping the former as science fiction, I'd describe space fantasy as advanced technologies separated by vast time periods from our present, or unconnected to current human history at all, like the Star Wars films being set 'a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'. 

Here are some examples of books I've read in the four rough categories...

Alt-hist - changes details in the past to create a different set of events, or a different contemporary reality. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth explores how the USA could have adopted Nazi ideology in the 1930s. I'd also include Jasper Fforde's books about Thursday Next here and any other books about a world that looks a bit like ours but is different in some way.

Speculative fiction - starts (broadly) with where we are now and predicts what might happen in the future. This can drift towards science fiction when something novel is introduced (like triffids, for example) but the emphasis is always on the human side of things rather than the technology. Well known examples would be The Handmaid's Tale, or Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World (in a previous generation). JG Ballard's books The Drowned World and The Drought fit more here rather than in science fiction.

Science fiction - stories that revolve around or focus on a particular discovery, advance in knowledge or change in technology. 2001: A Space Odyssey and I, Robot fit here because humans discover or introduce something that changes the world. I feel this is getting rarer as a genre in terms of new releases. However, the Expanse novel series is a good example of how this genre can still produce new compelling stories.

Space Fantasy - examples would be Dune by Frank Herbert, the Culture novels by Iain M Banks, novels set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and several of Alastair Reynolds's books. I enjoyed reading Adrian Tchaikovsky's books Children of Time and Children of Ruin, and both of those belong in this category. 

These are just my own categories and I'm probably inconsistent. But then I'm only classifying books for my own enjoyment, so it probably doesn't matter which category books end up in. 

Monday, November 07, 2022

Finally finished Farscape!

Yes, we have finally frelling finished Farscape! 23 years after I first watched most of the first season on BBC2, I can tick this series off. 

Sometime towards the end of last year, I was reminiscing about Farscape. Cathy bought me a copy of the DVD box set for Christmas. Unfortunately, it was on a region-specific DVD and we didn't have a multi-region DVD player. However, these days DVD players are old technology and we could buy a new multi-region DVD player at minimal cost.  So once that had arrived and we had set it up... we could start watching the show from the beginning of the first series again. 

The basic premise of Farscape is an accident befalling an astronaut called John Crichton who is testing a new spaceship, the Farscape Module. The ship unexpectedly causes a wormhole in space, his ship passes through it, and then on the other side of the galaxy he meets a bunch of different aliens who have all similarly been uprooted from their lives. Thrown together, they gradually become his loyal friends. Well, loyal-ish. They often have their own agendas and aren't always trustworthy.  

One of the things I liked about Farscape when I first saw it was its use of puppet creations made by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. While they still had recognisably humanoid tendencies, including two front-facing eyes, noses and mouths in roughly human proportions, the diminutive Rygel and the hulking Pilot who was embedded into the living spaceship, Moya, both looked properly alien. The rest of Moya's alien inhabitants were all people in make up or latex masks as is pretty standard in science fiction series. The one exception is a very human looking character called Aeryn Sun, a female "Sebacean" who becomes the love interest for Crichton as the seasons progress. 

Personally, I felt the puppets still worked. However, there is also plenty of grainy CGI, which was ground-breaking in the late 90s and early noughties but looks distinctly dated now. The quality of each episode is variable. Some are tightly scripted and have a clear story arc. Others are looser in their approach and seem to have characters wandering around for no discernible reason other than to kill a few minutes of runtime. 

However, the show had some neat ideas. When Crichton first arrives on Moya he's immediately injected with "translator microbes" that explain how he can understand all the other aliens. The idea of a spaceship that is mainly organic and genetically engineered is still novel. The show also developed its own vocabulary of swear words. "Frel" was an obvious replacement for an English word beginning with f. There was also "dren" which roughly translated to crap, and "tralk" which correlated loosely with slut. 

The show managed to avoid being too cliched. There are quasi-fascist bad guys (the ironically named Peacekeepers) but that didn't drift into a rebellion versus empire scenario, and there are competing factions and races who are neither better nor worse options. There is also a spiritual element to the show, with an apostate priest called Zhaan as one of the main characters. Throughout the show there are hints of an afterlife and another plane of existence inhabited by the souls of the dead.

I'm not going to do a full plot summary, but the first two series have a lot more self-contained episodes, although the storylines are common to science-fiction series - there's a body-swap episode, an episode where a character gets marooned and ages in comparison to the rest of the shipmates, a planet where one of the characters is revered as a god, a planet where a character accidentally gets married and so on. Just about every science fiction series has some or all of these events occurring in some way. 

Midway through season two a definite story arc emerges. A new principle baddie, Scorpius, comes to the fore and he has a reason for relentlessly pursuing Crichton. The show also begins to focus more on Crichton's quest to get home. Seasons three and four explore this further, with Crichton having to decide whether he dare jeopardise the safety of Earth by returning. Season four ends on a cliff-hanger with Crichton and Aeryn turned into glass beads by an alien weapon. 

However, that was the last episode of the last season. The story could have been left on that very dark note, but two feature length TV movies - The Peacekeeper Wars - followed. These weren't included in the box-set but I was able to pick them up off eBay very cheaply before we got to the end of season 4, so we watched them straight after the season finished. 

I wasn't hugely impressed with the feature length episodes. There was some closure to the main story arc regarding accessing wormholes. However, the plot revolved around using a hidden race of aliens who could create some kind of aura that would make antagonists seek peaceful resolutions and that all just got a bit convoluted and contrived. Along the way one of the main characters died a heroic death which sadly felt a bit meaningless by the end of the film, given the way Crichton eventually forced all the warring races to back down and accept peace or be annihilated by a weaponised wormhole. 

However, overall, I'm glad I can now say I have watched the entire show. There were definitely some good stories, particularly in the first two series. Claudia Black, who played Aeryn Sun, captured the character of a Peacekeeper commando abandoned by her own kind magnificently and was probably the strongest and most interesting character across the entire run of the series. There was a lot of humour throughout as well and it was darkly amusing how every single plan went wrong in some way. Weirdly, that made it feel a lot more realistic than a science fiction TV show with rubber-mask aliens ever should!

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Non-buyer's remorse - wizard edition

The other night Cathy handed me this toy figure of a Troll made by Funko, and said: "This reminded me of you!" 

Bit harsh? Maybe. I don't mind Trolls. They're kind of cute. But what she was really saying was it reminded her of a photo she took at Greenbelt a long time ago when I was trying on a hat.

I didn't buy the hat even though it was blue and amber, making it the perfect hat to wear to Shrewsbury Town games. 

I also didn't buy it even though my nickname in the team I worked in at the time was "the word wizard". I even had a sign by my desk that my friend Matt made me. 

You might note that Matt spelled wizard with two zeds. That amused me and reminded me of Rincewind the wizard from some of Terry Pratchett's books, who had "wizzard" written on his hat.

Anyway, the troll reminded Cathy of the photo of me wearing a hat I didn't buy. I have had "non-buyer's remorse" about that hat ever since. This is the opposite of buyer's remorse when a person regrets purchasing something. This is one of the rare times when the opposite is true. 

I could have been a wizard all this time. But I didn't buy the hat.