Thursday, July 18, 2024

The "lucky" unlucky Politics students have even more to write about

Back in 2022 I compared the mundanity of studying Politics in the 90s with the chaos of the last few years. My mum brought that up when we were chatting last night. As things seem to have gone even crazier since that blog post, I thought it might be time for a follow up. 

In the last two years we have had three Prime Ministers. One of them now holds the record for shortest Prime Ministerial term, which yet somehow also aligned with the death of the UK's longest reigning monarch. Then there was a coronation - the first in a lifetime for anyone under 70. 

We had changes in leadership in the devolved governments as well, and for a brief moment both First Ministers and the Prime Minister in mainland Britain were non-white. Vaughan Gething, who was Cymru's Prif Weinediog for about four months, made history by being the first black leader of any European country. 

The fact that none of them lasted very long in charge and two have already been replaced by white men (the other post is currently vacant) feels a bit regressive. Vaughan's tenure ended this week after bitter rows about screenshots of ministerial group conversations during the pandemic being leaked to the press, and ongoing questions about campaign donations. Along the way he became the first First Minister to lose a Senedd vote of no confidence. 

The most recent change in UK Prime Minister came about due to a General Election, which I've already blogged about. It was an unusual election, with Labour achieving a huge majority but other, more interesting stories on the fringes, like independent candidates winning in areas with large Muslim communities, the Green Party winning 4 seats, and success also for Plaid Cymru and Reform UK. 

And that's just politics in the UK. For my A-level we spent a year studying American politics. So I understand the system quite well. But back in the early 90s, current events were, frankly, boring. Bill Clinton had yet to get accused of anything untoward with an intern and American politics was far less polarised.

Contrast with current events now. Last weekend former President Donald Trump was wounded by a shooter at one of his campaign rallies. A couple of days later he was named the Republican nominee for the Presidential election later this year. He's also named a running mate who apparently thinks Britain has been taken over by Islamists. It's a bizarre claim considering the Muslim protest vote against Labour.

And now it seems the incumbent President, Joe Biden, might decide not to run for a second term. It's really not clear who would have the profile to step in at this late stage and take Trump on.

There is an old curse 'May you live in interesting times'. I'm beginning to think the times are too interesting. And I feel really sorry for anyone doing a Politics A-level at the moment. 

Anyone sitting their exams this summer would have enough material to write about just from events that happened while they were studying! I have no idea if they could keep up with everything. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Snack of the Month - Oreo Space Dunk

Shout out to Matt and Lauren, long-time friends and, more recently, supporters / enablers of my Snack of the Month posts. This month's Snack of the Month was a present from them.

So, these are Oreos that have a neon fondant filling containing popping candy. 

I was intimidated by these and decided I dare not open them on my own. So, I took them with me when I met up with family recently. That way I thought some of my nieces and nephews could give their verdict on them as well.

Oreos traditionally have to be separated before consumption. In this case, that means you get to revel in the vibrant colours.

The biscuits had different patterns on as well. I think this is meant to be an astronaut. The fondant oozing into his helmet is not a good look.

. I 

This star was a much better design.

They tasted mostly like Oreos normally taste. The popping candy was a bit extra but being immersed in fondant creme had removed much of the pop from it. The kids liked them enough to eat loads of them, which ultimately is the same as a good review. 

Monday, July 15, 2024

Tangible relics of the dawn of the Internet

I found this in one of my Tragically Hip CDs. I bought the CD in the late noughties and the website was already defunct.

There was a sticker on the front of the CD outlining what was available on the website. According to some other fans who remembered visiting it, there were three extra tracks that hadn't made it onto the album.

The card is a relic of a time when the Internet was new and shiny and full of exciting things. This was web 1.0 - when people visited websites and weren't expected to generate content themselves. 

I never thought I'd get nostalgic for those days.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Book(s) of the Month - concluding two trilogies

Two books to review this month, both by science-fiction author Adrian Tchaikovsky. Both books are the concluding novels in trilogies. <<<SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW>>>

The first book up for review is Children of Memory. This is the third 'Children of...' book and although based in the same universe and following on from other events therein, doesn't really feature the same characters as the preceding two books. It has versions of some characters, in that characters in this book  have inherited characteristics or are copies of original characters. 

This series began with Children of Time, set in the deep future. A human plan to 'terraform' a planet and seed it with intelligent life goes awry, just as human civilisation collapses. Centuries later, humans have got some way back towards their former pinnacle and set out to discover what happened to the planned colonies in a second terraforming expansion. They discover the terraformed planet and its new occupants - a race of giant, intelligent spiders. 

Children of Time  was followed by Children of Ruin, which set the same stage except this time on an ocean world with octopuses instead of spiders. There is also an alien life-form that starts out as an accidental antagonist that innocently kills everything it infects. The book concludes with humans and spiders, who are now allies, saving the octopuses and reaching common cause with the aliens.

In Children of Memory we meet a combined crew of human, spider, octopus and alien as they discover a human colony from the second age of human terraforming. They have also recruited members of a new race evolved from corvids on yet another abandoned first age terraforming project. 

The super-evolved birds turn out to be the most interesting characters in the book. There are two of them, Gethli and Gothel, who are incapable of acting individually, but combined are incredibly good at taking things apart and putting them back together again. That includes mechanical items and also computer code, psychoanalysis, and so on. They also open the door to a lot of conversations about what qualifies as sentience and whether intelligence and 'thought' is just a construct used to understand consciousness. That sounds dry, but I like conceptual discussions like that, and there was plenty of humour in the dialogue to keep it accessible. 

The overall story is mildly convoluted. The author is going for a twist, setting up the scene to be deliberately contradictory. The timeline is all off and it becomes apparent that the characters are experiencing events at different times in the colony's history, but don't know that. 

I can't really review this book properly without a big reveal. So skip the next paragraph if you don't want spoilers and scroll past it.


So it turns out the mixed up timeline is because there is an alien device of unknown origin that has recorded the lifecycle of the doomed colony and the exploration party are trapped in it. Except there is then another twist - the simulation is an entire fiction. The initial landing party were destroyed as they tried to land, but not before the alien device replicated the crew in exacting detail. The device then simulated what would have happened if they had landed. 

So, the first twist is basically "they woke up and it was all a dream recording" and the characters were interacting with it (and messing it up). And then the second twist was it wasn't a recording, it was just conjecture by a bored machine who wondered what would have happened. So the recording turned out to be a dream after all. I thought the second twist was unnecessary and the author was being too cute. There is no reason given why an alien machine would fabricate what a colony would look like. The recording being disrupted by the new incursion of beings made more sense to me. 


So, overall, I didn't think Children of Time was as good at the preceding two books in the series but it was still worth reading. I really liked the corvid characters and felt they added something to the story without being just another elevated version of a creature. Tchaikovsky is good at surveying the deep future and writing as if aeons have passed, and it's a credible vision. 

The second book I'm reviewing is Lords of Uncreation. This is the third series in a trilogy that I began reading last year after buying the first book in Browsers Bookshop in Porthmadog. On our recent trip to North Wales, we went back to Porthmadog and I bought the concluding volume. (The second book in the series was a Christmas present.) Books one and two have been books of the month previously. (Shards of Earth review; Eyes of the Void review.)

So, on to book 3... The big space-war against the terrifyingly destructive 'architects' is still going on. Idris, who is one of the few humans who can navigate 'unspace', has discovered that the architects are enslaved by other, even more mysterious entities. This book is basically about how Idris confronts those entities - the beings who are the self-appointed 'Lords of Uncreation'. 

There are a couple of tangents in the book. The one featuring the mysterious race, the Essiel, was quite entertaining. I like how the race remains inscrutable and unfathomable, even as characters interact with it more. It feels properly alien. The other tangent - about the genetically engineered all-female human offshoot called the Parthenon - is less compelling. 

I felt the conclusion of the book was very satisfying, but if I had one criticism, it's that it took a bit long to get there. Some of the tangents slowed the main story down - particularly in my view the chapters about the political infighting in the Psrthenon - and there seemed to be a lot of back and forth over the exact nature of the threat to the universe. Eventually, though, everyone worked out what needed to be done and did it. 

They are chunky books (500-600 pages each), yet enjoyable and I'd recommend them to anyone with a taste for science-fiction. 

Friday, July 12, 2024

I succumbed to the lure of reduced football stickers

I said I wasn't going to buy any Euro 2024 football stickers. But then Lidl knocked 30% off a multipack and the temptation was too great!

The pack included a tin, which was a major contributory temptational factor. I can justify it as a place to put my swaps.

There were 9 packets in the tin. All of them had a 'shiny' as the first sticker. The first packet had a shiny of Arda G├╝ler, who was a stand out young starlet for Turkey. 

The second sticker in the first pack was of two Cymru players! I was off to a good start.

Three of the nine shiny stickers were 'parallels' meaning they are rarer - I'm a bit annoyed by it because it leaves me with a conundrum of whether to stick them in the album or not. I probably won't. 

However I did get an ordinary shiny and the parallel version, which neatly shows what I mean.

Because of licensing issues, some players just have headshots where their kits aren't visible. They look a bit odd. Plus it makes the choice of headshot really important. 

Poor old Oliver Kahn deserved better!

Thursday, July 11, 2024

European Championship Final preview

Shrewsbury Town flag!

I haven't posted much about the Euros, but suddenly England are now in the final. This seems to be against many people's expectations (including mine!) as the team hasn't exactly lit up the tournament with scintillating football. (Spain, the other finalists, look scarily good.)

Whatever happens on Sunday, England will make history - either winning the Euros for the first time or being the first country to lose two finals in a row. The second option isn't the sort of history anyone would want. But it's still remarkable.

I missed England's quarter-final win over Switzerland last Saturday because I was driving back from Oxford, where I had seen Barry Town get hammered 9-0 in a pre-season friendly. 

I listened to the game on the radio on the way home and arrived back at my house just after the penalty shoot-out concluded. Driving while trying to listen to commentary on a penalty shoot-out was a novel experience and not one I want to repeat.

Unfortunately, a fixture clash meant I missed last night's semi-final as well. Instead I was at a meal in honour of a former colleague who is leaving a hospital diabetes service after 20 years. There was a chance to follow the action as the game was on in the bar of the pub we were in. 

I got into my car after the meal. There were 5 minutes to go in the game. The score was 1-1 and I thought if it went to extra time and penalties I might get home in time to see the shoot out. But it didn't even go to extra time...

Instead Ollie Watkins, who had come on as a sub, scored an incredible goal on 89 minutes and 59 seconds that effectively won the game for England. Fun fact: a few months back I saw Ollie Watkins at a football match when I went to see Truro City play Torquay United in Gloucester. And now he's England's hero...

As I have listened to both England's recent wins on my car radio, I am wondering how much England-supporting friends would pay me to sit in my car on Sunday night and listen to the final on the radio because it seems to bring good luck. I asked the question on Facebook and so far the highest offer is 57p.

Maybe I can watch from the couch. Fred, my Mum's dog has been pressed into service as a lucky mascot for a few of the games. He might bring more luck than I will.

I've seen a lot of posts on social media (mainly by my brother) saying "It's coming home!" That's a reference to a well-known song that was massive when England hosted the Euros in 1996, 28 years ago. (Maybe it is time for an England win.)

Also, if it does "come home" then that's the end of that mantra. Next time round it'll have to be "it's staying home!"

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

2024 General Election Review

The result: Wales stops feeling blue

I stayed up until almost 5am watching the election results come in. Admittedly, I didn't watch it all - after the exit poll announcements at 10pm I watched the Star Wars film, Solo, to kill a bit of time before the actual results were declared.

By now, everyone with a passing interest in politics will know the headlines. Labour won with a big majority - something that felt unthinkable after Boris Johnson's huge win for the Tories in 2019. 

The Liberal Democrats went big as well, their 72 seats being the party's highest total for a century - going back to when they were just Liberal, no Democrat. 

Plaid Cymru won 4 seats, doubling their representation in the House of Commons. The number of constituencies in Cymru had dropped from 40 to 32, so some MPs had been squeezed out already. Every remaining Tory incumbent lost - including a record 4 former Welsh Secretaries. Most of the seats were won by Labour and the Liberal Democrats got one. 

The exit polls predicted a depressing total of Reform winning 13 seats. In the end they got 5, including panto politico Nigel Farage finally becoming an MP. Subsequently there have been questions over whether several Reform candidates were real people. The picture of their candidate in Clapham appears to be AI generated. Several candidates in Scotland have a nonexistent digital footprint. They still got thousands of votes though. 

I was happier to see the Green Party win a new record total for them of four seats. Jeremy Corbyn held on to his seat in Islington as an independent candidate having been ejected from the Labour Party. Amazing to think he was leading Labour in the previous two elections. Other independents won in areas with large Muslim populations, which is being taken as a protest vote against the Labour Party's stance on Gaza. The success of the independent candidates took some of the gloss off Labour's victory. 

I was flicking between channels on election night. I stayed mainly on BBC 1 Wales which focused on results from Cymru. BBC2 was the general BBC UK coverage chaired by Laura Kuenssberg, who I feel has been very partisan towards the Tories for several years. She was matey with Boris Johnson and seemed like his personal PR machine at times. Watching Laura slowly assimilating what was happening was quite amusing. Her expression turned increasingly sour as the night wore on. 

Meanwhile, on ITV there were some decent guest pundits including Ed Balls and Nicola Sturgeon. Sky's coverage was also quite good. It seemed that Sky announced results a fraction before the BBC. Sometimes they announced a bit too quickly, at one point they erroneously credited the Greens with a win in a seat Labour won off the Tories.

Early on in the night Andrew RT Davies, leader of the "Welsh" Conservatives, lost his cool on BBC1 Wales and lumped the blame for the Tory defeat squarely on (now ex) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. In fairness, he wasn't wrong in his criticism of the decision to call an election without a coherent campaign strategy. Rishi may have felt a July election would wrongfoot his opponents but it also seemed to wrongfoot his own party. 

I knew two people personally who were standing as candidates. My fellow Barry Town fan, Ian, was the Plaid Cymru candidate in the Vale of Glamorgan. A former work colleague, Charlie, stood as the Tory candidate in Llanelli. Neither won, but props to them both for standing. 

Now the dust has settled and we get to see whether Labour have been all mouth and no trousers in their promises of change. It's been barely a week and so far they seem to have made the right noises. I'm a bit concerned that the new health minister has links with private healthcare companies. But overall it feels that things may be different now. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

2024 General Election Preview

I've been putting off a review of election leaflets because... we simply haven't had any to review. Labour are the only party to get in touch. We have had three leaflets from them. So my traditional review of pre-election literature feels like a waste of time this time.

All we got...

Technically we are in a newish constituency because the boundaries have been redrawn. The net result of this is that the number of parliamentary seats in Wales has reduced from 40 to 32. That means we get 20% fewer politicians.

The irony is that Labour's central message is "Change", except, as Cathy pointed out, all we've ever had here in Grangetown is Labour. Real change here would mean voting in an MP from any other party!

Unfortunately we don't get the option of voting for an official Plaid Cymru candidate this time. Plaid announced they were withdrawing support for their candidate because of anti-semitic tweets just after the cut off date to get a replacement in (more details in this report, which includes details of the tweets). This isn't the first time Plaid have had a candidate with a dodgy track record on social media in our constituency. It's a real shame this has happened again because I wanted to vote for them.

Other people I've talked to have had lots of leaflets. I have noticed a major difference between a Labour leaflet posted through my mum's door and the ones we have received. The leaflet delivered in Shrewsbury was this:

Yes, actually a Labour leaflet!

In contrast, the Labour leaflets we have received have not featured this 'Stop the Boats' messaging. I strongly suspect that is because Shrewsbury's population is 97% white and skews towards older people, and the profiling experts would assume that means they will respond positively to anti-immigrant rhetoric. (My mum didn't!)

Meanwhile where we live is the most multicultural community in Wales. This is reflected in the (possibly photoshopped) picture of Labour supporters with our incumbent MP on his leaflet. 

I find that the most cynical aspect of this - the blatant racist 'Stop the Boats' rhetoric is bad enough, but Labour don't even have the guts to stand by their racism in communities that are more likely to be offended by it.

I am completely repelled by the leaflet that was delivered to my mum's. I've written before how my grandmother moved to Britain when she was 19 and how both she, and my mum, experienced racism. One day I will blog about my experience as a five year-old refugee - and how my family were given a 30 minute warning to pack everything and head to the nearest border. It happened while we lived in Africa and it has taken me years to properly grasp what was going on and come to terms with how much danger we were in. 

I wouldn't wish the experience of racist abuse or being a refugee on anyone. But you shouldn't have had to have experienced those things to have empathy and compassion for people in that situation. The way the people crossing the channel in small boats are monsterised and treated as less than human by the media and the right wing parties is sickening. And now Labour are doing it too. 

This is a deal-breaker for me. Labour are pandering to racists - and doing it dishonestly at that, by saying racist things to get racists to vote for them and then being careful not to mention it in other communities. The duplicity in that makes them completely unpalatable. 

Monday, July 01, 2024

Home runs and holidays - June 2024

June was another very busy month. I've blogged about some of the major highlights already but here's my traditional end of the month review.  

The big sporting event this month was a day watching baseball in London, courtesy of my friend Gawain. This is the first month since July last year that I haven't been to any football matches. But I have been watching the European Championships. 

The Euros have been pretty good, overall, so far. Wales fell at the final hurdle back in the spring and didn't qualify but Scotland made it. They had a torrid time, though, and were on the plane back home after three games. England qualified unconvincingly from their group and needed some very late goals on the last evening in June to extend their Euros into July. 

I've also been to two stamp fairs, starting a new collecting theme - pangolins. My stamp collecting mojo comes and goes and I hadn't bought any for ages, but I enjoyed getting back on the hunt for things. I'm trying to collect stamps from countries where pangolins live and so far have a good mix. 

Recent additions

The stamp fairs and baseball were good distractions from a difficult ongoing work situation. I won't go into details but the 'change programme' stepped up a gear in the first week of June. We are now facing a few months of disruption. 

It felt like a good time to take a short break from work. So I was glad we had booked a week's holiday in North Wales with my mum and a friend. I've already blogged about it - with lots of photos. Castles, beaches, steam trains - all the staples of a holiday in Cymru, with the added unexpected bonus of sunshine and zero rain!

At the end of the holiday we had a weekend in Shrewsbury, which was great timing as my eldest niece, Joy, was celebrating a milestone birthday - she's now a bona fide teenager and had the balloons to prove it.

Hard to believe it's 13 years since Joy's appearance turned me into an uncle. (I blogged about it back in 2011!

We also got to see other members of the family, who were all delighted to see us!

And that marks the halfway point in 2024!