Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Another fantastic invention: Oreo easter eggs

Maybe I missed them last year, but I think this is my first sighting of these little beauties.

As you probably know, I am something of an Oreo aficionado (see below) so anything that combines chocolate with Oreo is a good thing and when you combine it with an easter egg then it's even better. Granted, it's a bit too soon for shops to start flogging Easter goodies so close to New Year but the festival is early this year so I guess that's the excuse.

Please feel free to send me huge quantities of samples. I shall enjoy them enormously and be very grateful.

Previous Oreo-flavour blogposts:

Peanut Butter Oreos

Oreos and S'mores

Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich

Oreo white chocolate brittle

Oreo Goodness

Happy Oreo-ness

A bag of Oreo-goodness

Saturday, January 16, 2016

RIP David Bowie

I've never been a 'fan' of David Bowie. I've never seen him in concert. I've only got one album of his (a 'greatest hits' album, which doesn't really count).

Still, I was quite surprised to hear about his passing. He was one of those cultural icons (he wasn't a 'celebrity' – he was definitely much more than that) that has always been around ever since I was a kid. I knew he was getting on a bit, but had no inkling that he would die so young (well, 69 is a good innings, but you know what I mean).

Like with Michael Jackson and many other famous people of a similar ilk who die before they get old and decrepit, the well-worn phrase springs to mind: you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

I knew Bowie was something special. He was one of those people bestowed with the honour of being a 'national treasure', that unofficial title which the collective cultural consciousness of a country grants someone when they impact a nation so greatly. He was cool, edgy, intelligent, kind, softly-spoken and a musical genius.

But the thing is, he was always 'there', in the background and, I guess, he was taken for granted. Occasionally a song of his would be on the radio. He might pop up on TV or on YouTube (I came across this clip of him singing 'Little Drummer Boy' with Bing Crosby just before Christmas), but apart from his success in the 1980s, he never really featured prominently in the media. Of course, he was just beavering away doing his own thing and it was the hardcore fans who were following his work.

When I heard Bowie had died I just had to fire up Apple Music* and listen to a David Bowie playlist. It was then that I was reminded of the greatness of his music and what an incredible legacy he'd left behind. Admittedly, I haven't really listened to his more recent stuff, but from what I have heard I can appreciate it for what it is (maybe not my cup of tea, but culturally important nonetheless).

Rest in peace, Mister Bowie. You will be sadly missed.

My top 5 Bowie songs:
1. Space Oddity
2. Starman
3. Kooks
4. Ashes to Ashes
5. Heroes

*while I still have my three-month free trial!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Can you smell that coffee shop ... smell?

If you are of a certain age, you will remember the downside of going to the pub with your mates before the smoking ban: coming home reeking of smoke. This was just an accepted – yet unpleasant – side effect of sharing a public space with nicotine addicts, even if you'd gone out for half a pint. Any clothing you wore on a night out would have to go straight in the laundry because it smelt terrible, and you also had to make sure you had a shower and washed your hair. This would get the the stench out easily enough, but it was still an annoyance.

Now that the ban is in force across the UK (and has been accepted pretty much by everyone universally), this problem does not exist. This is a good thing, not just because of how our clothes smell, but also because our risk of acquiring passive-smoking related cancer is reduced substantially.

It is curious to think that my sons' generation will grow up completely oblivious of the dreaded 'pub odour'.

But, there is a new phenomenon, and it is the 'coffee shop odour'.
My 'local'

I only really noticed it recently. I'd been to my usual coffee shop at the end of the road for a drink with a friend. When I came back, my wife – who had been out and didn't know where I'd been – casually asked about my trip to the coffee shop (all because I reeked of coffee).

Admittedly, there are worse things you can come home smelling of – but it's a bit unnerving that just going for a (non-alcoholic) drink can make you a bit wiffy.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens (a review)


Like most of the planet, I was pretty excited about the new Star Wars movie. The first couple of teaser trailers for The Force Awakens provided some hope that this new film would make up for the disappointment of the prequels.

Having been burnt by The Phantom Menace et al, I was still slightly cautious and deliberately avoided any further promotional material to steer clear of any potential spoilers. I tried not to even look at the poster in case I saw anything spoiler-y (ultimately that proved impossible, and a big plot element was staring me in the face).

In the week of the film's release I had to avoid the internet pretty much altogether (not easy given the fact that I work from home) until I'd gone to see it. It says a lot when you have to reorganise your life just to keep away from film spoilers. Damn you, Disney and your behemoth marketing machine!

Overall, I liked it. It was fun, gripping and fast-paced (more on that in a bit, though). I did get slight goosebumps when the famous 'Star Wars' crawl began and was pleased to see it didn't mention anything about trade disputes or midichlorians.

JKY came with me – a truly special father and son moment – and he loved it. He was a little scared by one flashback sequence but apart from that he was glued to his seat.

It was good to see the return to more practical effects and characters, although people often assume that the prequels were shot entirely in front of a green screen, which isn't true. They actually used models for many scenes and these photos prove that. The effects in the latest Star Wars instalment, however, felt seamless and the choice of using film cameras as opposed to digital ones helped give the Force Awakens the same feel and look as the original trilogy.

The story was solid, following two characters (Finn and Rey) as they get tangled up in the efforts of the Resistance and their fight against the evil First Order, helped along the way by some old-timers (ie Han, Chewie and Leia). Finn and Rey were great characters to be introduced and it was refreshing to have a good mix of genders and races (human races of course!) represented.

I felt the pace to be a bit too quick in places. One particular scene, where the rebels are discussing the Starkiller base and how to attack it, seemed to be over in mere seconds, while similar ones in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi feel like they last for at least a couple of minutes (I haven't checked so might be wrong). That is certainly JJ Abrams style, so it's not surprising (and thankfully the 'lens flare' filter was turned down to '1'), but was a bit too frenetic for me, and didn't quite feel right for a Star Wars movie.

The Force Awakens seemed also to have too many overt 'knowing wink' references to the other films, which unfortunately spoiled it for me a tad. It suffered from 'The Hobbit' syndrome, where it didn't quite have the confidence to move out of the shadow of its predecessors and stand alone as a film in its own right, and had to constantly scream at you things like 'Look! It's C-3PO - remember him? From the other Star Wars films!!'. Another slight niggle was the exchange between Han and Rey talking techno-babble – the amount of which would have been more at home in an episode of Star Trek.

One final gripe is the finale, where the rebels destroy yet another superweapon by attacking its major weakness. Sounds a bit familiar doesn't it? Abrams has gone on record, acknowledging the similarities but also defending the storyline. I kind of see his point, but can't help thinking it's a bit lazy. There are an infinite number of ways they could have taken the legend forward without using a devastating weapon (and they have already, with the now-non-canonical expanded universe), because a good movie is really all about the characters – not the big set pieces. This is a problem which too many Hollywood films end up getting caught up in.

I can accept it's not entirely illogical to think that the baddies will come up with a terrible weapon to wipe out the opposition, and that each time this technological marvel is destroyed a bigger and more powerful one takes its place. The ever-growing size of superweapons started way back in the Clone Wars, so there's precedent for an arms race of sorts. It's just, really, now that Starkiller Base has been destroyed, if the First Order carry on, the increasing size of their subsequent weapons gets ridiculous. I mean, what next? Galaxy Nuker? Universe Expunger?

These are, however, minor niggles and I'm not one of the minority of haters that will never be content with anything post original trilogy. I reckon the reason people find it hard when a new Star Wars film comes out is because between 1983 and 1999 no other movies existed (officially, anyway – and of any decent quality). The three original films embedded in the culture of a generation in such a way that when something new did finally come along people just couldn't handle the 'new'. It was like discovering someone had come along and redecorated your room at the family home while you'd been away at university.

I do feel that Star Wars is in good hands – there seems to genuinely be a desire to do the franchise justice. Yes, Disney as a company is in it for the $$$s but I think the people on the ground working on the projects have such a love for the characters and mythos that they don't want to screw it up.

So, roll on Rogue One - the next installment of the Star Wars movie machine. We're counting on you to keep up the good work.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A review of 2015

Happy New Year!

My, how time flies when you neglect blogging!

Seems my last post was over two months ago, and I was hoping to maintain the momentum I'd managed to achieve since the summer when I was trying to post about once a week. In terms of numbers I did 49 posts in 2015 (Argh! Very annoying ... I could have written one most post just to nudge it up to a nice round 50!), which was much better than the previous two years when I did 24 (2014) and 17 (2013).

So, if I can achieve at least 50 posts in 2016 I'll be happy. I think the main reasons for stumbling was illness and work so I'll have to watch out for those. I must try and remember the purpose of this blog (ie mainly to keep my hand in with writing) so I don't abandon it again in the future.

Anyhoo, onto my reflection of the last year:

The biggest highlight of 2015 was spending three days in New York with wifey. It was a truly memorable experience and worthy of celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary. Pity it was only three days, though! I visited Cadbury World in Birmingham for the first time as part of my fortieth birthday celebrations (not the most inspiring of experiences, but fun for what it was) and we did a weekend trip to London in the autumn to show the kids some of the sights. We also traveled to Oxford and Yorkshire to visit relations in the summer, but we usually do that at least once a year anyway so nothing new there. Disappointingly we didn't get to go to France over the summer but we have booked our Eurocamp stay for 2016 so that's something to look forward to.

I only read a handful of books this year (as usual) but I think the one that stands out is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's a brilliant dystopian tale full of retro nostalgia that I couldn't put down, which is a rare thing for me.

I've seen plenty of films in the last year, but sadly not many in the cinema. The best film of 2015 has to be Star Wars: The Force Awakens which I managed to see just before Christmas (I hope to write a review about it sometime soon). A welcome return to the feel and tone of the original trilogy, it was a relief to see the beloved franchise back on track. If it wasn't for Star Wars, I would have chosen Mad Max: Fury Road for my pick of the year, which was a terrific reboot (sort of) of another franchise.

Films I've seen this year (mostly on DVD):

Thumbs up: Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Avengers: Age of Ultron (only just a thumbs up), Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davies, Philomena, August: Osage County, Hyde Park on Hudson, Maleficent, Calvary, The Butler, Chef, Begin Again, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Big Hero 6

Thumbs down: Terminator Genisys, Minions, Home, Mr Turner, The Amazing Spiderman

Being self-employed has its ups and downs, but I'm grateful for the flexibility it brings as it has certainly come in handy numerous times this year when I've been ill or had to step in for childcare duties. The downside is always the unpredictable nature of my work and how often I don't know what I'm doing from one week to the next. Also, it can get scary when I've not had work for weeks and clients are taking ages to pay me. Even so, I'm not moaning or complaining. I'm sure if I had a steady regular job like most people I'd be complaining about annoying colleagues, crap pay, stressful targets and other problems associated with employment. One piece of encouragement is that December was pretty full on with work. Typically, December is a dead month and I become quite stressed about what I'm going to do to get through to the New Year. This year, thankfully, was different and even more remarkable is the number of projects I've got lined up for January (an equally quiet time), so I'm quietly optimistic about year ahead.

Faith and politics
Why I've lumped them together I'm not sure, but they seem to come together for me anyway. I am desperate to 'do my bit', 'play my part' and 'make a difference' but in some ways that's easier said than done. As a Christian, faith and politics are kind of interlinked. Like all believers, I'm called to care for those in need ("....love your neighbour as yourself..." Matt  19:19) – whether I feel like it or not. This can be worked out on an individual level but cannot, I feel, be ignored on a wider level which is why I think it's important to get involved in politics and speak up about issues. Sadly, on both fronts I don't feel like I'm doing very well. We give a fair amount of our income to support various causes (and we support a Ugandan charity I visited in 2014) but ever since the depressing outcome of the General Election I've felt the need to do more.

I have done some work producing some short videos for Hope Not Hate – a grassroots campaigning organisation aimed at fighting racism. Part of their work is to counter the likes of UKIP which are attractive to racist types and they're doing a great job of countering the negative attitudes towards things like immigration. So I suppose that's something. And I'm always signing petitions for various things that speak up against stupid things our government is doing or attempting to do. I do feel I need to support a political party, however, but can't decide between Greens, Labour or Plaid Cymru.

Coming back to faith, I've become more and more convinced that God is a just God but ultimately more loving than we can possibly imagine. That should be the default position of all Christians on every issue, however uncomfortable that might be. Certain Christians like to come from an angle of God's anger, vengeance and punishment but I find that hard to reconcile with the teachings of Jesus. Not to say that we're free to do anything we want ... but I guess if one's default position is love then you can't go too far wrong. There's a hefty challenge right there, especially when you consider Jesus' teaching to love your enemies.

So, in summary, I'm not doing nothing – just gotta do a bit more!

Other stuff
This year has brought home to me the reality of life's fragility more than ever. The horrific situations in places like Syria, the related refugee crisis and the various terrorist attacks we have witnesses in the news have demonstrated this on a global scale, but I have also had friends, relatives and associates battling cancer (one of whom didn't make it). So that's all a bit of a downer.

I've been using Facebook less and less these days (mainly by deleting the app from my phone). I accept it's a useful tool for keeping in touch with people, but I was getting a bit sick of reading endless narcissistic posts that only served to make me feel more inadequate. I'm still using Twitter, but mostly as a business tool rather than anything personal (except promoting my blog posts, of course - hah!).

2015 and all that
On a final – and lighter – note, I was excited for us to finally reach the year 2015, being a big Back To The Future fan. In case you didn't know, the future featured prominently in the second installment of the time-traveling adventure and ever since I saw the movie I've been fascinated to see how its predictions of life in 2015 turned out. Seems they weren't totally off, just not quite in the way it was imagined.

A video posted by @farsight_creative on

So, thanks for reading. Wishing you a terrific 2016!