Friday, October 9, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Hell's Club (movie mash up)

If you've been living under a rock, you won't have seen this video which went viral recently. A masterpiece in mash up editing, it has a brilliant soundtrack as well. Love it!

Friday, October 2, 2015

It's the Friday video post! To Scale: The Solar System

When I think of the cosmos, I am blown away by the fact that it is so unimaginably vast. This video does a brilliant job of demonstrating how huge our solar system is, and is beautifully shot to boot.

I thought it was interesting that they only went as far as Neptune. Presumably they would need an even larger area to include Pluto (technically no longer officially a major player in our solar system since being downgraded to a dwarf planet).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Adventures in baking: Soda Bread

I'm trying to develop my 'thing' which is baking bread. I haven't done much for a while due to the demands of life and parenting but now I'm beginning to find the time again.

My previous efforts have been mixed, but I'm determined to get it right and a book my mum lent to me has some useful guidance on this gluten-based dark art.

One of the recipes in the book is for soda bread, which is so fantastically and stupidly easy any fool could make it. This is primarily because it doesn't involve kneading. You just bung all the ingredients together and let the chemistry do its thing before chucking it in the oven.

I was pretty happy with it. My only disappointment was the slightly dough-y bottom which is a problem I always seem to have. Not sure if it's the temperature of the oven or my kneading (or mixing in the case of the soda bread) that's an issue.

Oh well, must keep trying - I'm sure I'll crack it eventually!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Gall-Peter's Projection

I was amazed when, many years ago, I first saw the Gall-Peter's projection map. I couldn't believe how different the world was compared to how I'd always imagined it.

Here's a funny and interesting clip from the West Wing that explains things pretty well and gets at the heart of the problem with the traditional Mercator projection map.

We have a map of the world in our kitchen which we use with the kids for educational purposes. I really tried to get a Gall-Peter's projection but the only kids-friendly map was a pseudo-Mercator, which was frustrating.

Amazingly Google uses a Mercator projection, which admittedly is actually more useful for navigation, but this helps to continue to reinforce the message that Western countries are bigger (and therefore 'greater') than they actually are.

Friday, September 11, 2015

It's the Friday video post! A Lego man builds a Ferrari

Watch a Lego man build a Lego Ferrari in this mesmerizing time-lapse.
Posted by Business Insider on Thursday, 27 August 2015

Monday, August 31, 2015

Life in a country that is falling apart

I am often thoughtful of how fortunate we are in the UK to have access to food, housing, education, healthcare – the basic necessities of life – and that it's so easy to forget that the vast majority of people on this planet don't experience quite the same comforts or security.

Save the Children have done a powerful follow up to a video they made last year, taking a similar concept but using the hidden camera approach, turning the tables on our cushy Western existence.

It's sobering to think how our everyday lives become so disrupted when we can't take our kids to school, buy simple items in the shops or get our loved ones to hospital.

No wonder people are clamouring to get into Europe by any means necessary, desperate for their families to live in a place of relative safety. If we were in their shoes we'd do exactly the same thing...

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The gun control post

Let me just start by saying that I've used a shotgun a few times in my life, taking out clay pigeons for target practice. I have to admit it's fun, exhilarating and addictive. I know a few people who've been to the States, visited a firing range and had a go at various exotic weapons, the kind of which The Terminator would be at ease using. I'm sure it's just as enjoyable, if not more.

Yet again, the availability of guns and the whole issue of gun control has hit the spotlight thanks to another horrific shooting in the US. I'm amazed at how a section of the American populace continues to argue that limiting access to firearms would not reduce these tragic events.

The case for gun control seem pretty sensible to me – I don't have to write about the main points, Australian comedian Jim Jeffries does a good job here:

Warning: contains swears

This video makes an equally powerful point about the danger of guns (especially the fact that it's not just about lunatics going on a killing spree that is the problem):

As someone coming from a nation where guns are hardly anywhere to be seen, this whole situation seems a bit bonkers. The Dunblane massacre was Britain's wake-up call to guns and led to tighter controls. A similar incident in Australia led to the same kind of response. I just don't get how the NRA lobbyists and anti-gun control community are so immune to the atrocities committed on a regular basis across their country. Ricky Gervais had something to say on Twitter and got the usual backlash despite being entirely rational and intelligent in his arguments.

As I said at the beginning of this post, shooting (as in, target practice or hunting - not innocent people obviously) is an enjoyable activity just like sailing, gardening or golf are enjoyable. Why can't the pro-gun people just admit that? They love it and get a thrill out of it and they'll be damned if anyone is going to interfere with their enjoyment.

So, the reason why they lobby for things to stay the same is the simple fact that they won't let the slaughter of innocent men, women and children get in the way of their fun.

And that is truly heartbreaking.

Friday, August 21, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Timelike

Time-travel films can be tricky to pull off, but 'Timelike' does a good job of building suspense and keeping you guessing, all while making use of the 'found footage' style of film-making.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Watching Star Wars with your kids

For most guys my age (and probably a few girls as well), sitting down to watch Star Wars with your kids is one of those watershed moments.

I'd been waiting a long time to share George Lucas' seminal film with my eldest JKY, trying to size up when he'd be the right age to watch it. I didn't want him to be too young because a lot of it would be lost on him, but I didn't want to leave it too late either in case he accidentally watched it without me. Plus, there are one or two moments in the film which could have been unsuitable, and also the character of Darth Vader, who younger (or more sensitive) sprogs could have nightmares about.

The reason I wanted to oversee this 'event' was because I grew up with Star Wars, endlessly watching it on VHS (actually Betamax first of all) where we'd recorded it off the telly. It was hugely informative, sparking my imagination as a kid in so many ways – feeding my love of sci-fi and action. The entire Star Wars universe was a vast and exotic place to get lost in, fighting the evil Empire, saving princesses and flying awesome spaceships.

JKY is not unfamiliar with all things Star Wars. He's been exposed to it in all kinds of ways since he was a toddler. This has been mainly through Lego, and the numerous Star Wars sets he's received over the years (did I mention he has a LOT of Lego??), as well as various games and Lego movie shorts that we've acquired. Whilst it's been impossible to shield him away from it all, it's always been a worry of mine that his exposure to the original trilogy (ie Episodes 4 - 6) would leave him a bit disappointed.

You see, all the recent Star Wars stuff, including the prequels, is still set in the same universe but it's like everything's on steroids. Case in point: the showdown between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Darth Vader (Robert Prowse/James Earl Jones) in A New Hope is actually quite a tame battle when you think about it – but the action takes second place to the story and tension of two well-developed characters locked in mortal combat, representing the age-old conflict between good and evil. Culminating in a sacrificial gesture by Kenobi to help Luke and his companions flee the giant Death Star, the scene has all the right ingredients. Compare it to the Darth Maul (Ray Park / Peter Serafinowicz) lightsabre duel with the younger Obi Wan (Ewan MacGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and there's a lot of flashy swordplay and jumping around impressive sets ... but to me it lacks any real heart or passion. I guess I was worried JKY would expect the 1977 Star Wars to be slow and boring.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. JKY loved the original trilogy and has asked to watch them again at some point. I'm only slightly disappointed that he already knew the major plot reveal in Empire Strikes Back, thanks to various Lego Star Wars movies giving the game away. If you're new to Star Wars and watch Episode V, it's quite a revelation:


It was, however, satisfying when we watched Return of the Jedi where we learn about Leia and Luke. JKY didn't see that one coming!

Now he's seen episodes 3-5, we're all set to watch episode 7 in December. Can't wait!

I've already expressed my opinion about the prequels but I'll probably watch them with JKY (except number 3 - maybe that will have to wait until he's older). They aren't great, but they do have their moments, I guess.

Podracing anyone??

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Peanut Butter Oreos! Omnom!

Thanks to my friend Jon, who alerted me to the existence of these limited edition beauties. They certainly are no better than the standard Oreo creme filling but a bit different from the norm and enjoyable nonetheless.

They were bought in the Cardiff Bay Asda, which was also selling the 'golden' Oreos or something like that. I've tried similar ones in the States and they taste a bit like custard cremes - might check them out sometime.

I still miss these delicacies, which are still my favourite. When oh when will they return to the stores???

Monday, August 10, 2015

In fear of the robot revolution

The Channel 4 / AMC series 'Humans' has just finished its season run and as is standard with most series it leaves us with an intriguing cliffhanger. The show portrays a world where robotic humanoids ('synths') are all around us, helping out with day to day tasks such as cleaning, driving, healthcare and administration. The drama centres around a family who arrange for a synth to help around the home, but become unwittingly involved in the lives of a group of renegade synths who are self-aware and on the run from the authorities.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this thought-provoking drama which explores not just the implications of androids helping us out in our daily lives but also the question of what it means to be human. A second series has already been given the green light which is great news.

The many questions that 'Humans' raises are the pretty standard ones that relate to artificial intelligence and include:

-If we create machines that are conscious or self-aware, does that mean they should have equal status to humans?

- Will self-aware machines rise up against us (a la The Terminator, The Matrix etc.), regarding our fleshy frames as inferior and obsolete?

- Can humans and self-aware synthetic humans love one another - as family or even as partners?

In my previous post 'In praise of the robot revolution', I wrote about how great it will be to have robotic servants doing our bidding while we go off and do more 'important' things, but maybe, just maybe we're causing problems for ourselves by doing that.

I was rubbing my hands in glee at the thought of getting non-humans to ease the burden of our existence, doing all the crappy jobs so we don't have to – but unfortunately it seems the only way we can get machines to be able to do these chores effectively is by bestowing a level of intelligence on them not much different from our own.

Once you've created intelligent 'life', the leap from intelligence to self-awareness may not be so big, so then you just end up creating more humans – albeit of the plastic and metal variety. Whether you classify them as humans would be up for debate, of course and while they may look, feel and behave like humans what's inside would be vastly different. No organic respiratory, reproductive or nervous systems like ours, for example. But, they may still have that undefinable 'essence' of humanity that would be difficult to ignore.

Once that point is crossed and artificial humans become virtually indistinguishable from us, the slaves will most likely no longer want to be our slaves. In many ways they will be superior to us: faster brains, greater intelligence, immunity from disease etc. Then comes the Terminator scenario that science fiction has been banging on about since forever: the robotic slaves overpower their masters and take over.

No wonder all the big brains in science and technology have warned about the dangers of AI, and the need for it to be controlled to avoid such an apocalyptic scenario.

I know none of those issues are new, and there are far greater minds deep in thoughts over all of this, but it's still an interesting topic.

And thanks to the continued developments in AI and robotics, as well as the popularity of shows like 'Humans', it will continue to be so for many years to come.

Friday, August 7, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Patagonia in 8K

I would like to visit Patagonia one day, not just because of its curious links with my native Wales but also the stunning scenery as seen in this video.

I'm not a big fan of the whole super-high-def malarky that plagues television and the like, but this does look amazing in 8K.

We still don't watch TV in HD at home - sigh.

Friday, July 31, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Son of a Beach

Warning: potential NSFW video. Viewer discretion advised.

Apart from the slightly unnecessary volleyball scene at the beginning, this is a funny and quirky little short that builds to a dark ending (well, not so dark actually but you will know what I mean after you've seen it).

Sun of a Beach, directed by Alexandre Rey, Arnaud Crillon, Valentin Gasarian et Jinfeng Lin, is a 2013 short animated film from Supinfocom Arles (now MOPA)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The joy of LEGO sorting...

Number One Son has acquired an insane amount of Lego over the years, thanks to kind friends and relatives buying him sets for Christmas and birthdays. It got to the point where there was so much he felt intimidated about building models from instructions because it was hard to find the pieces.

We thus came up with an obvious solution: sorting all the Lego according to colour. We took a trip to IKEA and purchased a couple of basic drawer units and corresponding trays, then spent over a week separating out all the pieces.

Now, I now we're not the first people to ever do this – and there are plenty of examples out there of Lego being sorted in a far more obsessive way, not just by colour but according to type as well – but it is a very pleasing sight indeed.

Isn't that glorious?

Needless to say, it is now far easier and quicker to locate the relevant pieces for a model than before. The only downside is that we have lost many (mostly small) pieces over the years so a bit of improvisation is needed for some models.

All we have to do now is to find storage space for all those models that are going to be built!

Friday, July 24, 2015

It's the Friday video post! An animation blast from the past

Years ago I made a stop-motion animation film. It involved a banana.

When I was working at Candy Jar, I re-edited it slightly giving it a retro filter makeover and new music.

Um, here it is:

Monday, July 20, 2015

We have now entered an extinction age ... wait? What??!?!?

On 20th June 2015 BBC News carried the following headline: Earth 'entering new extinction phase' - US study

Now, I try to avoid the news as best I can but fail miserably and often end up getting depressed about the state of the world. This headline, in particular though, made me even moreso. Actually, it wasn't the headline itself, or the content contained within the article that make me sad – it's the reaction to it.

Or rather, the lack of reaction.

You'd think when told our entire species is on the brink of extinction, you'd think there would be a sudden rush to do something about it. Almost, like everyone would stop working in the factories and get out in the streets and y'know, take action.


That is what the reaction should be. But it wasn't. A collective 'tut-tut' was repeated around the world and then everyone went back to sipping their lattes and finding out how big Kim Kardashian's backside had become.

Several weeks after this headline, nothing much has changed. We are going about our daily lives as normal. The news rolls on: a crisis in Greece continues, an American comedian faces sexual assault accusations and a probe in deep space is capturing images of the solar system's most distant planet.

No-one seems to have really have grasped how serious this is, but I think I can have a guess at why.

The problem is that this threat we are facing is not immediate. It is gradual. The whole climate change thing is. It's been brewing for decades, slowly but surely – imperceptibly so.

If NASA suddenly spotted an asteroid hurtling toward us at fifteen miles a second, we'd do all we could to intercept it and stop it careering into our precious home, destroying everything we've worked for over the last two thousand years. That kind of immediate threat invokes an immediate response.

But when you are talking about an encroaching threat that will occur over the next century or so, no-one seems bothered. This – our inability to see the long-term and take the necessary action – has been and always be our downfall.

So, make the most of it while you can. Savour that cup of coffee, squeeze your loved ones that little bit tighter, bask in the warm breeze of a summer's day .... because we may not be able to enjoy such things for much longer.

Friday, July 17, 2015

It's the Friday video post! The Black Room

My friend Terry produced and starred in this short film called 'The Black Room', which does an interesting twist on the superhero genre. Looking forward to seeing further episodes...

More info about The Black Room can be found

Monday, July 13, 2015

Tech review: Apple iMac 21"

Apple has been pretty slow to update its iMac line, apart from adding some higher-spec models with 5K screens at the top end of the line which, in my opinion, doesn't really count.

They're probably waiting for the next generation of Intel processors or something, but to a consumer like me I don't care. When I look at their online store and can only afford to buy the November 2013 model (yes, almost two years old), I'm pretty disappointed.

Yeah, I know – poor me.

Why I bought an iMac in the first place (or, justification for purchasing an overpriced calculator)

For some time I needed to get a new Mac for my businesses as my laptop (a 2011 model) was starting to show signs of getting old and I didn't want to risk the thing going kaput in the middle of a crucial edit. If there wasn't such an urgency, I would have waited until there was a complete refresh but I had no idea how long Apple would take to do this.

Some would argue that I might as well get a PC, but I'm still very much wary of Windows and its inherent awfulness. OS X is not perfect but I would choose it over Microsoft's offering any day. At least, for now....

So, I decided to bite the bullet and get the machine on finance. I opted for a build-to-order option with a more powerful processor so it took a few weeks to arrive (via Kazakhstan no less). Thankfully my laptop stayed alive until it did (and is still going strong!).

An honest review

Well, it's slim and great looking. iMacs always have been (even the older, fruit-flavoured Macs were pleasing to the eye back when the only option was a CRT monitor). In fact, the thinness is pretty remarkable. Looking at it, you have to marvel at how they pack all the internal gubbins into such a slight frame. Essentially, it's a laptop with a huge screen welded to it.

I'd ordered a wired keyboard because I like the larger form with the arrow keys and side keypad on the right. I much prefer it to the smaller bluetooth keyboards that come as standard, which need their batteries replaced periodically. Plus, I ditched the magic mouse as well. Even though they're pretty nifty with their trackpad thingy on top, they are an ergonomic deathwish. Horrible things to use. Are Apple seriously trying to cripple their users??? 

With most Apple offerings, the great design and appearance is a given. What about using the thing?
Well, overall I am pretty disappointed. We've had iMacs in the home since the early 2000s, and this is the first one where I've been let down by the speed. We have an older, family iMac which is about 5 years old running Snow Leopard and even though it's ancient in computer terms, it's quite responsive. My new iMac has a 3.1Ghz quad-core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and 1GB of video memory. Not particularly underpowered, it would seem, so why so slow? I think it's actually the OS (Yosemite) which is the problem.

For example, click on the 'About This Mac' from the Apple menu in my old iMac and it comes up almost instantly. Do the same on this new one and you might as well go and make a cup of tea while you wait – and that's for just a simple operation. Imagine what you have to do when you've actually working.

I mainly use this new machine to do video editing in Premiere Pro and After Effects, with a bit of work in Photoshop. While these applications can be a bit slow at times (and occasionally crash, which is infuriating), they work OK. The only time when the raw power of the machine (which is there, somewhere) comes into play is when I'm rendering. At least then, it seems like the computer is actually working hard for me and all that money I'm forking out doesn't seem a complete waste. Rendering is much quicker than on my laptop, and shorter render times are ultimately what's important for my business. Time is, after all, money.

Then there's the fact that there's no DVD drive.

Now, actually I don't mind this. It kind of makes sense. Apple has a reputation for ditching old technology before it's completely disappeared. Disc drives are truly a thing of the noughties, and now that we have high-capacity USB drives, streaming and cloud storage the need for them is becoming less and less. DVD and its newer cousin Blu-Ray aren't completely gone yet but they soon will be, just like the humble cassette tape, so it isn't totally daft that Apple are ahead of the game in this area.

It used to be that I always had to supply videos to clients on DVD or CD but this is becoming less and less common as virtual storage becomes more acceptable. If I need to create a DVD I can always use my laptop (as long as it's still working!), and at some point I'll probably invest in an external disc drive (one that burns Blu-Rays as well) anyway.

One final niggle is the fact that it's not easy to upgrade the machine. Because of its small and slim form-factor, replacing the RAM is a feat only to be accomplished by professional, Apple-certified technicians. It involves removing the screen and other essential parts that only the bold and brave should attempt. Doing it myself would not only void the warranty but probably render the computer inoperable due to my butter-finger bumbling clumsiness. Put simply, I would kill it.

This is OK, I guess, but given that it would cost in the region of an eye-watering £200.00 just to beef up the RAM to 16GB (it won't go higher than that, unbelievably) it seems unfair and mean especially as they've taken away the disc drive. Apple should start with a minimum of 16GB for base models with an option to upgrade it to 32GB if people really wanted. 8GB seems just too little for a modern computer (and a premium one, at that), especially given the clunkiness of Yosemite which clearly needs more oomph to make it run smoothly.

So where do we go from here?
My experience with this new machine is disappointing, to say the least, and makes me wonder if Apple really does give a monkeys about its computer division. It feels like they are updating computers more infrequently (the Mac Pro, it's high-end supercomputer offering, hasn't had an update for almost two years either), and when they are they don't seem to bother with much of a power-boost or any truly innovative features. Not that I want my iMac to have a touchscreen or fingerprint ID recognition or anything like that – I just want it to power through tasks effortlessly.

While Apple is more of a mobile tech company now than it is a computer company, there is some sense in still maintaining its computer line, purely because – as someone has pointed out – its mobile devices rely so much on developers who use Macintosh computers to create apps for iPhones and iPads. So in that sense, I'd be very surprised if Apple suddenly does away with its computers. They are updating them, just not very often, which I guess is a move away from the olden days when Macs were the primary source of income for the company.

There's also the issue that your average, everyday consumer doesn't need that much power. Most of today's computers can handle HD video quite happily and that will probably be the most processor-intensive task required of it (apart from games, I suppose). If you're doing hyper-realistic 3D graphics or scientific calculations, a top-of-the-range powerhouse will be needed – but then price won't be such an issue to big organisations as it is to the average consumer, so they can shell out for the top-of-the-line models with gobs of RAM.

I'm hoping the OS X issue will be fixed when the new version of OS X (El Capitan) comes along in the autumn. Apple claims that the new version of its operating system has been tweaked to deliver performance enhancements and will run faster than Yosemite, so I wait with eager anticipation.

If things don't improve, there's a real danger this Mac fanboy just might turn to the dark side and consider delving into the world of PCs.

And that would be a shame. A real shame.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Monday, July 6, 2015

Sugar sugar sugar SUGAR!

For some time now I've been contemplating drastically cutting my sugar intake. One friend has recently become diabetic and another has had colon cancer, which has made me think more seriously about my own health and what I eat. I've been pretty lucky so far as I've not had any major scares in that area, and I am thankful for that. The thing is, as I've moaned about before, I'm not getting any older. It feels like turning forty is that threshold where things aren't what they used to be and I have to accept that my body is not that of a twenty-five year old anymore (which it isn't obviously).

I don't think I'm obese, but my waistline has slowly expanded over the years and I don't want to succumb too much to the middle-aged spread if I can help it. I am a sucker for sweet treats and I tend to eat big portions even though I keep telling myself I can't do that anymore.

It's a bit of a struggle, to be honest, but I know I should be doing all I can to look after my future self. I might be relatively healthy at the moment, but my choices now will have an impact further down the line and I owe it to myself when I'm older to be responsible.

There's no mystery formula here: exercise and eat healthily. Even if I don't slim down massively, as long as I'm doing those things that's better than nothing. Exercise is easy enough a concept I think, but eating healthily? What does that mean exactly?

There are so many fads out there: low-carb diets, low-fat diets, paleo diets, 5/2 diets – it's bewildering, but I have concluded that reducing the amount of sugar and processed foods I eat is a good plan. It seems like sugar is becoming our generation's tobacco, as doctors and dieticians warn about the dangers it can post to our health. I don't think fats are the enemy, but invariably most fatty foods (like cake) have lots of refined sugar in them. In fact, what's really shocking is that sugar is in practically everything (even stuff that is marketed as 'healthy'), so it's really hard to avoid it completely.

So, I am trying to get into the mindset of a diabetic – regarding high-sugar snacks like cakes, chocolate and sweets as threats rather than harmless treats (interesting how adding the letter 'h' to 'treats' makes the word 'threats'). What's difficult is the fact that eating a ton of sugary food won't send me into a hyperglycemiac episode. There's no certainty that a high-carb diet will result in me losing my limbs (as would happen with a diabetic). I won't feel any short-term effects, but it's the long-term effects that are the problem. I don't know how continued sugar intake will affect me five, ten or fifteen years downs the line. I may well end up a diabetic anyway, as my chances increase with age and expanding waistline.

Whatever the long-term might be, I'm going to give this a go. I am likely to have the occasional 'extinction burst' along the way but on the whole, I reckon it's worth it.

I will report back on my progress over the coming months.

Friday, June 26, 2015

It's the Friday video post! The Oceanmaker

This is a delightful little CGI short set in a post-apocalyptic world where most of the water has run out (a la Mad Max).

Instead of cars, it's all about planes – and getting hold of that precious wet stuff.

Friday, June 19, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Electron microscope slow-motion video of vinyl LP

If you've ever wondered what a phonograph needle looks like when it moves through the grooves of a record, this is the video for you.

When you think about it, being able to hear stereo music all because of microscopic grooves in a thin piece of circular plastic is pretty amazing – even in today's world of digital downloads and music streaming. In fact, there's something vaguely magical about the whole thing, and the fact that we can't normally see what's going on with our own eyes makes it even moreso.

Thanks to electron microscopy, however, we can see that it's not actually anything particularly mystical.

But it's still cool.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


My good friend Jon recently introduced me to this great band, Need to Breathe.

They're Christians, but don't let that put you off – they've got some great music with soulful lyrics. I highly recommend them.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A bit more s'mores

Having recently posted about the American phenomenon that is 's'mores' elsewhere, I am pleased to report I have images of some s'more bars that I made:

Unfortunately I messed up the butter quantities somehow and put too much in (there's a lot of butter required to make them in the first place), but they were still OK – apart from being a bit oily. I dread to think how much fat was in them.

We also ventured out into the wild to make hot dogs and do proper s'mores, the way they're supposed to be done. Here's our British version:

Two digestive biscuits (chocolate chip digestives no less!), a roasted marshmallow and some Milka chocolate (I guess it should have been Cadbury Dairy Milk to make it authentically British, but I'll do that next time). 

Oh, and here's a scene from Toy Story 2 with a little joke about this unhealthy snack:

Monday, June 8, 2015

Follow me on Twitter (please!)

This is a shameless plug for my other bit of social media presence. Twitter – in case you've been living underground with wart-covered trolls for the last decade – is basically a lot of people shouting stuff they think other people would find interesting. Or something like that. It's also where politicians and celebrities go to embarrass themselves or do their best to get sacked. I know, sounds brilliant.

I just happen to do my fair share of 'tweeting' to the masses, and you can follow me here ( if you don't already (you will be pleased to know that if you follow me I will almost certainly follow you back).

Thank you!

Shameless plug over (for now).

Friday, June 5, 2015

It's the Friday video post! The Leviathan

The Leviathan is a short proof-of-concept teaser trailer which looks like a sort of sci-fi Moby Dick. Looks amazing, and I think Hollywood is talking to the director about making a full-length feature which will be interesting.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Oreos and S'mores - S'moreos if you will

A new variety of Oreos are coming out in the States: Oreo S'mores.

If you read my blog you may be aware that I have a certain weakness for anything Oreo. They truly are my Kryptonite. When we visited New York in February I was dismayed that I couldn't find a decent supermarket stocking the vast range of Oreo varieties and returned to the UK empty handed and a little dead inside. Ah well.

Another thing I wanted to try when I was in the States was S'mores, which I'd heard a lot about. Turns out, they're not actually a branded product, but a treat constructed from crackers (biscuits), melted marshmallow and chocolate traditionally eaten around a campfire.

Many food products have their own S'mores version (including Pop-tarts and Hershey's chocolate), and now it seems Oreo are getting in on the action too. Mmm, they do look nice.

Our American trip inspired me to make some S'mores of my own (making use of Marshmallow Fluff which we bought over there), and I tried a recipe from, er 'Love in the oven' ( which was pretty awesome. Here's the British version (with metric quantities):

340g butter
50g brown sugar
100g caster sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
150g plain flour
65g plain digestive biscuits (crushed)
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 x 180g Bournville Dark Chocolate Bars
200g Marshmallow Fluff

So basically, you mix together the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, flour and biscuits to make a thick dough. Spread half of it onto a greased baking tray, then layer the chocolate on top. Spread the marshmallow over the chocolate and then put the biscuit dough on as the final layer (this is the trickier bit as the marshmallow is quite soft). Chuck in the oven until brown on top, then leave to cool a bit before dividing into squares.

I don't know how easy it is to find Marshmallow Fluff here in the UK but I'm guessing you can just use normal marshmallows.

Needless to say, this recipe is highly calorific and has no redeeming qualities nutrition-wise, but these s'mores taste so good, you just want to have - ahem - some more (geddit?).

Sunday, May 31, 2015

In praise of the robot revolution

When supermarkets started installing self-serve checkouts, I was initially antagonistic towards such a move. I saw it as an attack on the humble, honest worker - their jobs being replaced by big metal boxes that shout at you to 'REMOVE ITEM FROM BAGGING AREA' more times than necessary. I was also indignant at the idea of being made to scan and pack my own shopping, as if it infringed on my right as a grocery shopper (I don't go to a hairdresser, sit in the chair and cut my own hair myself do I?).

But then, the reality dawned on me: this is inevitable ... and a good thing it is too.

Why? Because, as a civilisation I believe we need to move on. We need to change the way we see work. We need to free humanity from the hum drum 9-5 wage-slave existence, because it sucks.

Working in a supermarket stacking shelves sucks. Sitting on a production line at a factory sucks.  Flipping burgers in McDonald's sucks. In some ways, it would be OK if everyone else had to do a crappy job and 'pitch in' by way of contributing to society, but that's not the case. Why should I relax in a comfy sofa, sipping my latte in a trendy coffee shop while minimum-wage youngsters slave away behind the counter? Doesn't seem entirely fair to me.

Up until the mid-20th century, most jobs were done by humans with big machines doing the heavy and dangerous work. Then, robots started to slowly creep in, helping in factories to assemble cars and other essential products of modern society. At the same time, computers began doing the heavy number crunching for us so we could solve complex problems and think about other stuff. The two have slowly been coming together, and now we are on the brink of the robotic revolution that has long been predicted.

Autonomous vehicles are the next big thing from car makers, and the dream of self-driving cars whizzing along our roads is fast becoming a reality. Big companies like Google are investing heavily in this technology and by 2030 these cars will be commonplace, much like the self-service supermarket tills. Elon Musk, the head of Tesla cars, is already giving his cars autonomous freedom of motorways and has even said that one day humans will be banned from driving cars on public roads because we make too many mistakes. Interestingly, a recent report from Google admitted that their driverless cars had been involved in 11 accidents over the course of its 6-year programme (1.7 million miles of testing), but that all of them were minor 'bumps', no-one was hurt and that they were all attributed to human error (i.e. someone else driving into their cars).

Robots are taking over from humans in all areas of life: farming, medicine, education - even warfare. They are often more efficient and less troublesome than humans (except when they break down, of course) so you can see why business is investing heavily in them. The one thing that is stopping them taking over everything entirely is the elusive thing they call artificial intelligence. Without that, some straightforward tasks like sweeping the streets are done better by humans. Still, I'm sure those intelligent bods tinkering away in their labs will work it out eventually. 

Once the AI thing has been figured out, there's no end of things our robotic friends will be able to do. This is great because it will mean an end to the tedious tasks that hold us back so much. Most of us will no longer be needed to do our jobs so will have to occupy our time with other things. It will, possibly, transform society dramatically and take us onto the next level of civilization. Life could be very different in 50-75 years time.

The danger, of course is that we become lazy. Rather than use our freed-up time to help others, further our knowledge or enrich our culture we just become slobs or party animals frittering away our free time on leisure. Just watch WALL-E for a glimpse of what that might look like.

Maybe that's why it's important to prepare our society for this inevitable change before it happens, educate the next generation about the impending roborevolution and make sure they're ready to adapt. Governments and businesses need to have a plan too. Without their co-operation things could go pear-shaped, even nasty.

Looking again at the positives, I'm excited about what we're capable of as a species and what freedoms might come from our robotic friends. I hope my children and grandchildren will grow up in a world where they aren't doomed to work in the 'dark satanic mills' of Tesco or Starbucks. Rather, they will be free to do far more worthy things like explore the solar system, improve medicine or create stunning works of art.

What do you think? Will robots change the world or will low-skilled, crummy jobs always be around?

Friday, May 29, 2015

It's the Friday video post!

Bit of a 'serious' one this. I'm pretty passionate about affordable housing, something that seems impossible to sort out while politicians dither and pander to big business.

Here's a video about an idea that offers up a solution. Whether it will actually gain traction and work is another thing...

Monday, May 25, 2015

A worrying direction for politics

After the results of the general election I was pretty dismayed, and since then have been wondering how I can do my bit to change British politics for the good.

Even though I fundamentally disagree with the choice of the majority, I respect the fact that the people have made a decision. That is democracy after all.

Many, however, are calling for electoral reform.

Both the Green and UKIP parties have said they want Britain to move to Proportional Representation or something similar, a petition is doing the rounds at the moment trying to spark the conversation about changing how we vote and the Electoral Reform Society bemoans the fact that we have are a digital nation with a steam-age voting system.

In principle, I am all for doing something about the way we do politics in this country. Unfortunately, the current set-up is heavily geared in favour of those who benefit from it, so any change will be an uphill struggle against the powerful who are happy with the status quo. What worries me, however, is what things would look like if we do change the voting system, especially to PR. This is mainly because, with PR, UKIP would have 82 seats and that's a lot of seats for a quasi-nationalist party.
Farage looking distinctly European dictator-ish
I don't have to list in great details all the problems with UKIP (for there are many). Of course, the main thrust of their message is directed toward Europe, and the issue of whether or not we should remain within the EU is a matter of opinion. Some will be for Europe and some will be against it, and I can see pros and cons to both sides. I think the main problem with UKIP is its fascist undertones, mainly the hatred directed toward immigrants. Yes, we have immigrants coming into our country and exploiting the system, but they are a tiny minority and we also have huge amounts of Brits doing the same. To blame a country's woes on a handful of 'foreigners', rather than banking institutions that caused a worldwide economic disaster, is moronic to say the least.

Yes, parliament needs a kick up the backside, but I think we have a deeper and more immediate problem to deal with where a party like UKIP receives almost 4 millions votes, more than the Liberal Democrats.

This, I feel, is the more immediate challenge. For 'loony lefties' like me, armchair politics isn't enough (I, like many others, have shared a good deal of anti-UKIP articles on social media and it doesn't seem to have done much). Laughing at all the Nigel Farage jokes (plenty of material there) might be fun, but they only reach a limited audience – you're effectively preaching to the converted. Plus, making jokes about people or their politics isn't going to win them over.

Unfortunately for those of us who have a lazy disposition, the only thing that's going to stop UKIP from becoming more powerful is direct action: talking to people that will or might vote UKIP in the future and trying to convince them that there's a better way, and that things can only improve by showing compassion to all for the good of humanity.

One ray of hope is the fallout from the election with infighting, resignations and sackings within UKIP. It could be that the party implodes in on itself and is no longer here by the time the next election comes around – which can only be a good thing!

Friday, May 22, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Black Widow title sequence

I'm not a huge Marvel fan, but it's hard to avoid all the hype. Avengers: Age of Ultron was OK I guess, failing to excite or surprise to any huge degree, but could have been a lot worse.

It's interesting that Black Widow, the only female member of the Avengers team, whilst being a strong character doesn't have the same standing as males (and even gets completely omitted from a toy set, presumably because she's a 'girl'). Everyday sexism prevails in the mainstream media once again!

Still, there are plenty of Black Widow fans out there, and one has created this opening title squence for a fictional movie about her. Captain America, Iron Man and Thor have their own standalone movies – why not Black Widow? Again, is it because she's a 'girl' and not deemed worthy enough?

Who knows, but I think her story might be more interesting than the more testosterone-laden ones of her Avengers counterparts.

My only criticism of this sequence is the use of font for the hero's title. Seems a bit amateurish unfortunately, but apart from that I think it's a great peice of work.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow Review - An atheist parable?

Warning: Contains Spoilers! 

Last year, I saw the Tom Cruise actioner 'Edge of Tomorrow' but it's taken me this long to write a review. Better late than never!

A well-crafted sci-fi movie that doesn't disappoint, the story is Groundhog Day meets Aliens with a small dose of Saving Private Ryan. Despite being a great film, it didn't fare so well at the box office and they even ended up changing the title of the film on some DVDs to Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow for a weird reason. It's another example of original films not performing as well as sequels or remakes, which is a shame.

An alien species - the Mimics - have crash-landed into central Europe and have spread outward exterminating the human population as they advance, presumably intending to wipe out everyone on the planet. Before long they will have reached the Atlantic coast, but a vast army has been mobilised in England to counter-attack in a 21st century version of D-Day. Instead of landing ships they have quadcopter troop carriers and instead of rifles or machine guns they have Exo-skeleton battle suits (which are pretty nifty).

Cruises's character, William Cage, is forced against his will to join the assault, despite having no training or combat experience, and we follow his terrifying journey as a completely unprepared rookie into the warzone. About five minutes into the melee he comes face to face with one particular type of Mimic, an 'Alpha', and is killed instantly.

But it's not over. Suddenly Cage finds himself back in England, having seemingly traveled back in time to the day before the landings. Repeating everything again, he is killed on the French beaches once more only to wake up back where he started. It turns out that his continuous dying and resurrection stems from his initial encounter with the Alpha Mimic – these aliens have the power to reset time and are presumably using this ability to help them win the war.

Cage teams up with Emily Blunt's character Rita Vrataski, an elite soldier from previous battles, after he discovers she once had the same ability to time jump. This gives him and the rest of humanity an unusual tactical advantage. By repeating things over and over, he can quickly improve his fighting skills and work out how to defeat the Mimics.

If you've seen the excellent Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray, you'll be familiar with the time loop concept and it is convincingly employed here. The direction is nice and tight, avoiding any confusions that could potentially arise from a time travel scenario. It combines intense action-scenes with slower-paced moments with ease and doesn't take itself too seriously with instances of wit and humour.

I have to be honest and admit that I'm not always the sharpest tool in the box when it comes to the underlying themes of movies. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I don't and sometimes I need a clever person to explain things to me very slowly without too many big words. It's just the way I am. In this case, I've pondered and mulled over Edge of Tomorrow and reckon I've got a reasonable theory about what the film's message. I think the film is about the decline of religion - the triumph of science and reason over faith and old-world mysticism. More specifically, I believe Christianity is the main target, although other religions are not entirely excluded.

From what I remember, there is no explicit reference to the Christian faith or any religion for that matter. Instead, we are presented with a technologically advanced humanity packing some serious firepower. They are up against the Mimics: an interesting word - mimicry is all about the art or action of imitation. What are the mimics supposed to be imitating? Humans? Truth? Or is it simply that they are representing something false i.e. religion?

The alien Cage encounters is an 'Alpha', and his ultimate goal is to destroy the 'brain' of the Mimics - the 'Omega'. Chapter 22 of Revelation in the Christian Bible says: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." [Revelation 22:13]

Could this be the underlying message of the film? That reason and science will ultimately be victorious over outdated modes of belief?

In these times, it's certainly not surprising to find such a theme in the mainstream media. The assumption is that faith is in decline in the West and that science, logic and reason have been established as a more sensible replacement. Of course, this assumption doesn't take into account the growth of Christianity and other faiths outside the Western hemisphere, particularly China. Further, claiming rationality as the sole property of anyone without a faith is pretty narrow minded. Despite what Nietzsche has said, and what films like Edge of Tomorrow try to proclaim, God (or religion) isn't dead – at least, not just yet.

This film is great fun, and I'd highly recommend it. It's not perfect, but when you've got glorious battle scenes with soldiers in exo-suits fighting aliens on beaches, that's OK.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A dark day for Britain?


The results are in and David Cameron's Conservative party have won a second term. The Lib Dems have suffered a crushing defeat, while SNP now rule most of Scotland. These are interesting times for politics – but I am personally bitterly disappointed that Cameron is back in power.

I was hoping the electorate would send the message to the Conservatives that austerity is hurting all but the most privileged and that enough is enough, but ultimately I think people didn't want to rock the economic boat and voted out of selfishness.

So what does this mean going forward? Well, if you're feeling pessimistic like I am at the moment, it means we have another five years of deeply painful cuts that will affect the NHS, social services, councils, law courts, transportation and welfare. The rich and powerful will become even moreso, while the masses will take the brunt of the effects of austerity.

If, however, you're more optimistic, it might be that SNP's hold over Scotland will give it enough clout to influence things for the better (given that they are anti-austerity). Also, the so-called 'green surge' has shown people are taking the environment more seriously, and having Caroline Lucas in parliament will mean a voice for Green issues continues to be present.

This time round, it felt like people were more passionate about politics than before so maybe it's the beginning of a new era of engagement. I know I've been more galvanized by what's been happening in this election and there seems to be a strong movement toward more parliamentary reforms (e.g. getting proportional representation) which will only help to make governance fairer.

Even though I have fundamental issues with politics in general, I'm determined to play more of a part and get involved. If I want to see change in how our leaders run the country I have to get off my backside and do something. Things won't change all on their own.

As I was weeping (figuratively) into my cereal this morning, wifey pointed out a Bible verse for day that she had on her phone: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." ( Romans 8:18 NIV).

In these times of despair and uncertainty, it's good to have a bit of perspective.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

All trailers are basically the same!

I wrote about this a while back. Trailers (esp. for action movies) are lazily edited using the same techniques with no attempt to be original (or at least slightly different from all other others). This is probably because the majority of cinemagoers who these films are aimed at (i.e. hormonally-charged teenage boys) won't realise – or care – that they're essentially watching the same movie again and again.

Finally! Someone's done a trailer supercut to alert everybody to this fact.

Trailer editors - please take note.

Friday, May 1, 2015

It's the Friday video post - a party political broadcast

Here are a couple of unashamedly anti-tory, anti-UKIP videos to get you in the mood for next week's election (contains a bit of swearing)

The 2000AD post

If you've read any of my articles lately, you will know that I have something of an affinity for comic book anti-hero Judge Dredd, lawman of the future – he of the big shoulder pads, gravelly voice and awesome gun that fires a variety of useful projectiles for any and every occasion.

This affinity stems from my youth when, as an impressionable teen, I was introduced to the cult sci-fi comic 2000AD by my trendy cousin from London. I'd never seen anything like it before and was immediately hooked. A weekly collection of mostly serialised stories, 2000AD came onto the comic scene in 1970s Britain against the sci-fi obsessions of the time such as Star Wars and Star Trek. Many of the stories within the comic were pretty violent for the time and also contained huge doses of satire, usually with an undercurrent of social commentary.

To a pre-teen kid, this was exciting and captivating. I don't think sci-fi during the 80s was given much respect, especially in the cinema and TV – mainly because the expectations of special effects and the like were far higher than the current technology could allow. Comics, however, were limitless in their scope and could accommodate 22nd century cops fighting robot armies as well as mutant bounty hunters rescuing a time-traveling Ronald Reagan. Writers' and artists' imaginations ran riot across the pages and it was a sight to behold.

The thing I loved about 2000AD was its distinct British-ness. Even though a lot of the stories centred around American characters or locations, there was still heavy doses of wry British humor and wit. Some aspects of the comic were quirky or quaint (like giving all the 2000AD staff robot personas and monicas), but never unbearably cheesy. For some strange reason, I never bothered with American comics. All those superheroes in Lycra with secret identities seemed unoriginal to me. Give me a gang of anarchic robots fighting against oppressive humans any day. Even when 2000AD tackled the subject of superheroes, they put a unique spin on the genre (see Zenith) that others wouldn't have attempted. I would devour any 2000AD associated material – mostly reprints in 2000AD monthly, but also monthly US-format collections as well.

Apart from my London cuz, none of my friends got into 2000AD like me, which was a shame because I would have loved to have had someone to share my comic experience with. Some of the stories were so good, I would read each episode over and over, pining for next week's installment (which seemed so far away!). It also meant I kept fairly quiet about my comic collection. Back then, being a geek wasn't cool. In fact, geek didn't really exist as a label where I lived. Nerd, maybe. Or just saddo. I kept myself to myself in this regard and devoured the latest Dredd story in private.

My little brother, eager to copy his older sibling, read the Eagle comic which I think had been revived in the 80s to try and emulate some of 2000AD's success. Eagle was born in the 50s and is best known for being home to 'Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future'. I'm sure it is remembered fondly by those a few decades older than myself. The stories I read, however, never quite had the sophistication or frisson I was used to with 2000AD so I never bothered with it, which is a shame really because I had a deep respect for the old timer - Eagle paved the way for the likes of 2000AD, Tornado and Starlord all of which made a brief but significant impact on kids reading comics during the 70s and 80s.

Sadly, 2000AD is the lone survivor of those days and seems to be the only equivalent we have to DC and Marvel. I think this is a shame because the downside of the US comics is the whole 'universe' mentality where all the characters pretty much exist within one reality. This is fun for crossovers and stuff, but can cause all sorts of headaches when it comes to timelines, continuity etc. Why can't characters just live in their own universes and be done with it? I'll tell you why - money. Crossovers is a good way of churning out the same old stuff but with different characters and keeping fans locked in. The Marvel movies have done a pretty good job of doing this - even managing to hook people in enough to watch obscure titles that no-one had ever heard of (Guardians of the Galaxy, anyone?).

What I think is interesting is that 2000AD has been known as a launch pad for a lot of artists and writers who have gone on to work on American comics: Alan Grant (Dredd, Batman), D'Israeli (Judge Dredd, Leviathan, Batman), Frank Quitely (Dredd, X-Men), Steve Dillon (Rogue Trooper, Dredd, Preacher), Jock (Dredd, Batman), Garth Ennis (Dredd, Preacher) to name but a few. It's kind of a shame because it means artists 'move on' to the big American publishers (not always, though), but it shows how well 2000AD is at picking great talent.

Still, 2000AD has always been the little British rebellious upstart that refuses to play by the rules, and I applaud that. A full-length documentary all about the comic is being produced and you can see a trailer for it here (warning: NSFW for language):

It seems the producers are trying to find a distributor or something, so at the moment you can't watch it, but it looks like a great doc. Here's the production website:

2000AD may not have a string of blockbuster movies to its name. It may not be as well-known internationally - but at least it's original.

And sometimes that's all that matters.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

New York New York

To celebrate being married for 15 years and for both of us turning 40 this year, Wifey and I took a trip to New York.

We packed the kids off to stay with my parents and we had some 'us' time. Four days altogether, which is the longest we'd been away from the boys.

The lead up to the trip was a bit fraught. Would the kids be OK? What would happen if our plane crashed? What do we do when we arrive? What if the snow in America (it was in a middle of a big freeze at the time) wrecks our flying plans? Erk!

Well, the flights were fine and we got to and from our hotel easily enough. In fact, we had a jolly old time in NYC and it was truly the trip of a lifetime (albeit too short for such an amazing destination).

New York is, as I'm sure most people will tell you, amazing. It it big and loud and noisy and scary and wonderous and baffling all at the same time. Not only that but it's one of the most well-known movie locations ever (more on that later).

At the time of our visit, the North Western part of the US was experiencing extremely cold weather - colder than what they were used to. Walking out of JFK we were hit with a blast of frozen air, which was to become a common experience for our entire trip.

Staying near Times Square
Our hotel, The Muse, was in a great location situated just off Time Square. Some people have described TS as 'hell on earth', probably because it is some kind of consumerist centre of gravity for capitalism. Ginormo-screens glare down at your from every direction filling the place with their LED-glow, advertising world-famous brands promoted by faultless pouting models imploring you to buy whatever it is they are hawking in a never-ending loop. It has its own beauty. I didn't really notice the products or bands being sold, as such, just the staggering amount of LEDs shining at me in all directions.

A glimpse of Times Square

[Funnily enough, Cardiff has its own Ginormo-screen. Just the one. It's on Queen Street and reminded me of Times Square, but only a very tiny bit because it is one small screen compared to the seemingly hundreds plastered about 5th Avenue.]

The hotel itself was OK - nothing amazing. I don't think we'd rush back there anytime soon. The central heating didn't cope very well with the icy temperatures so our room could have been warmer. We also had problems with the plumbing too. A cold shower for two days running was not much fun. Saying that, the staff were friendly and helpful and when we complained about our problems they were quickly sorted and we even had a free breakfast because of our trouble.

The List
Together, we'd compiled a list of things we'd like to do in the big apple and managed to do most of it in the time given:
  • Statue of Liberty - lady liberty was pretty breathtaking. Beyond iconic, we couldn't visit NYC without going to see the old gal. It was a bit surreal seeing something we were so familiar with, thanks to movies and TV, in reality. To be honest, I spent more time taking pictures of the thing than actually looking at it which I'm really annoyed with myself about.
  • Central Park - well, we spent about fifteen minutes actually inside the park. It was a blanket of snow and pretty deserted. I am proud to say I used the central park toilets. That was about it.
  • Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) - we felt like we should at least enjoy some culture while in the greatest city on earth, so did some wandering around looking at paintings and stuff. We saw Van Goch's Starry Night which was pretty cool as well as some Jackson Pollocks and Andy Warhols.
  • Broadway (Jersey Boys) - we couldn't visit New York without seeing a show, and opted to see Jersey Boys. It was the best I'd ever seen in terms of performance, humor and music. The thing about Broadway is that you get to see the cream of the crop in terms of talent and we weren't disappointed.
  • New York City skyline (Top of the Rock) - another iconic view is that of the New York skyline and it was a beautiful clear day when we visited the Rockefeller Center. It was breathtaking to see the city's sprawl of skyscrapers including the famous Empire State building and the great expanse of Central Park.
The Rockefeller Centre
Getting around
We did a fair amount of walking on foot - just to wander around with these great skyscrapers all around us was a spectacle in itself - but for longer distances the only other option was the subway.

Again, another iconic aspect of NYC, it was not much different to taking the London Underground. The map took a little getting used to, and once we'd figured out the difference to Uptown and Downtown we were sorted. We managed to avoid the experience of rush hour and didn't see too many crazies (as one would assume from watching the movies).

We also took a total of three cab rides - two for travelling between the airport and hotel, one for getting from a restaurant back to our hotel. Our trip back to JFK was nice and pleasant and the cabbie was an older gent who was very friendly.

Movie Locations
Being a movie buff, I was naturally excited about visiting one of the most filmed cities in the world. Of course, New York itself is a movie location and everywhere we went there was a familiar view, but we didn't go out of our way particularly to visit locations simply because we were pressed for time. The Statue of Liberty, Times Square and Central Park were places to tick off that had had their more than fair share of screen time. One particular location took us (well, me) by surprise and that was the New York Public Library. We just turned a corner, and there it was! It's been in quite a few movies, but I remember it mostly from the opening scene from Ghostbusters, one of my favourite childhood films. Sad, I know, but it was quite a moment...

It's those lion statues ...

New Yorkers
New Yorkers are world-famous for being rude and short-tempered, but like most generalisations it's not true for everybody. Some of the locals we interacted with were friendly and welcoming (the cabbie and hotel staff, for example), but others fitted the stereotype better. We asked some cops directions and they looked at us like we were from another planet. The security staff at the tourist places were miserable as sin (not surprising given the soul-destroying job they had to do), and there were street hawkers all over the place. We were jumped on numerous times by these people trying to get us to ride a sightseeing bus, buy theatre tickets, buy CDs (bit random that one) and other touristy things. It was tolerable, but a bit annoying.

15 years and still going stong!
We certainly ate our fair share of Americana including New York staples (hot dogs, pretzels, pizza). We ate out a couple of times at an amazing diner called Juniors for breakfast. Having sampled pancakes, coffee and other yummy delights we were set up for the day (albeit feeling very stuffed). On one of the evenings we went to Hell's Kitchen for a fancy meal and ate at a restaurant with the same name and the food was incredible. One big disappointment was that we couldn't find any decent supermarkets anywhere. I was really looking forward to stocking up on various US treats not normally available at home (S'mores, Twinkies etc.), and there was nowhere to get anything. Sure, there were corner shops and the like but their range was limited. We did manage to get a few items from a giant candy section in the FAO Schwarz toy store (movie location for the film 'Big' no less) but even there I couldn't find everything we wanted. Not that I can complain, really - we got quite a lot!

Our haul of goodies

We packed a load into our trip considering we were only there a short time. It would have been great to have a week or two but we really couldn't leave the kids much longer, and New York is expensive - not just the touristy stuff, but the basics like food and travel as well. It's only because of the kind generosity of Wifey's dad that we could afford to go.

I've always said that I love America and the fact that my brother and his family live there is a good excuse to go back sometime. With New York, however, it feels like we barely scratched the surface.

Which is a good thing, because that gives us a good excuse to go back, and maybe next time ... we'll bring the kids.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The glaringly obvious problem with space travel

We seem to be in the middle of a space travel renaissance at the moment. Numerous companies are working on all sorts of rockets, satellites and other space vehicles. Astronomers are discovering new exoplanets light years away all the time - and the desire to colonise new worlds, especially places like Mars, is stronger now more than ever.

It seems the planets and stars that we see in the heavens are almost within reach, but there are so so many obstacles in our way preventing our species from expanding out into the starry night.

Space is relentlessly, unashamedly hostile to human life. Not only that, the distance between planets is mind-boggingly huge. It's going to take decades just to put humans on Mars - but getting there is the easy part. Trying to live on a cold, radiation-soaked, low gravity rock devoid of a decent atmosphere is more akin to suicide than anything else.

In the midst of all these challenges, there's one thing that appears to be amiss from all of the chatter about space travel. It's blindingly obvious to me, but I've not come across it and it's something that I reckon is one of the biggest hurdles there is.

You see, although space is mostly a dark, empty void it's actually still got stuff floating around in it - albeit very very very spread out. There are planets and stars, of course, but then you've got dwarf planets, planetoids, asteroids and comets. Small chunks of ice, rock and dust are out there too in all sorts of shapes and sizes. From the size of a small car down to microscopic specs - they're just spinning lazily around in the black soup happily minding their own business.

Which, I think, is a problem for us wannabe spacefarers.

At the moment, our spacecraft are just hunks of metal welded together. Granted, the walls of these vehicles are probably a few feet thick, but should they collide with a piece of space debris bigger than a tennis ball they might as well be made of tin foil – especially if that piece of junk is travelling at any kind of speed. The Sandra Bullock movie 'Gravity' illustrates the danger of mid-space collisions pretty well in all its terrible zero-G destructiveness. Various space stations and satellites have experienced small-scale damage over the years and NASA has previously researched the effects of meteoroid and space debris damage on spacecraft with its LDEF (Long Duration Exposure Facility). It's one of the many hazards associated with space exploration and, as we venture further and further away from home, will become more of an issue.

Colliding with something in a geo-stationary orbit is one thing. Hitting an obstacle while travelling at 17 metres per second is another. Voyager 1 is the first man-made object to enter interstellar space and is going that fast. It doesn't have much time to do an emergency stop, that's for sure. Obviously, Voyager 1 has been sent on a course that minimizes any chance of hitting something but surely eventually one day it will hit something. Maybe not for thousands or million of years, but it will no doubt one day be smashed to smithereens on some lonely moon out there in the cosmos (either that or gracefully fall into the fiery furnace of some distant star).

And that's the thing - yes, the chances of colliding with another object far out into deep space are pretty small, but we don't know what's out there in the quiet regions of space. Our telescopes wouldn't detect tiny fragments of rock left over from some ancient cosmic incident, and hitting one of those fragments at 17 metres per second is pretty much going to tear a hole in your ship that's going to be difficult to repair.

What's worse, though, is that any spacecraft headed for the nearest star systems will most likely be travelling much faster than that. Even at ten percent the speed of light, it would take about forty years to reach Proxima Centauri, but travelling at that speed is incredible: 30 million metres per second. Yes, that's right. Ten per cent the speed of light is a mere - ahem - 1,764,705 times faster than Voyager 1's current velocity. Imagine hitting a grain of sand at that speed! I don't know the physics, but surely it's going to do some damage? Maybe small particles would simply vaporise and be of little danger, but I'm not entirely convinced.

How could we possibly chart a course into deep space that avoids a collision with not just large asteroids but the tiniest speck of matter?

Now, making a short hop to the closest star system is challenging enough, but were we to develop some kind of faster than light engine (as featured in most sci-fi shows or movies) where we wanted to travel further afield, then we would be going at insane speeds, like 1.5 billion metres per second. Again, hitting something miniscule that fast is going to cause problems. Hitting anything sizeable could simply mean adios amigos.

I guess the interstellar void between stars is pretty unlikely to have anything in it. Presumably anything floating around in space is naturally drawn to any source of gravity so stars have done the job of hoovering up any bits and pieces that could potentially cause problems. But - you never know what might be out there. Should we ever get to a 'Star Trek' level of sophistication when it comes to space travel, there's also the very slight (but still possible) chance of smashing into another one of our craft if we're not too careful.

My feeling is that the only way to traverse these brain-achingly vast distances is to make use of worm holes, bypassing the need to do any travelling as such and simply 'hop' from one place to another. How we achieve that exactly is anyone's guess and probably will be beyond our capability for centuries.

Interestingly, a recent scan of the stars concluded that there are - as far as we can tell - no alien galactic empires anywhere. Assuming that a galaxy-conquering race would emit certain heat emissions, no traces were found in around 100,000 potential candidates. It's not conclusive proof that intelligent alien life doesn't exist out there in the cosmos but it's a strong indication that even intelligent life may struggle to get very far.

So, either we are very alone in the universe - or it's practically impossible to travel great distances among the stars.

Which is a real shame, because who wouldn't want to fly around in the Millennium Falcon like Han Solo? I know I would...