Friday, 30 December 2011

The Oar House revisited: still fantastic

One of the good things about having relatives in Dublin is that I get to go back from time to time for visits. As my in-laws live there, this includes Christmas - approx. every other Christmas, as it happens. (Not through planning, as such, but it just seems to work out this way.)

Christmas away from home seems to feature even more tasty food and drink than Christmas at home. This year, we rounded things off with a lunchtime visit to The Oar House in Howth on the way to the airport. I've posted about The Oar House before, four years ago. It was one of my favourites then and it still is.

The only problem with The Oar House is choosing what to have, as everything is so good! Fortunately, they have a solution for this too: a delicious and versatile tapas menu that can be ordered as a starter, scaled up for a main course or, as we did, shared among a few of us.

In addition to the must-haves - smokies and prawns of some variety (we had Prawns Pil Pil) - we had the calamari and a trio of dishes from the specials menu. Two of these had a decidedly Mexican theme - grilled prawn nachos and salmon tostadas. Tasty! The third was something that I would not normally order but was very glad that we did: crab claws. These were the biggest and most delicious crab claws that I have ever tasted, in yummy garlicky goodness. Amazing stuff.

Perhaps most exciting of all, whilst visiting The Oar House website for images, I discovered that they have a recipes section. Yummy! Watch this space for more on that. (When I feel brave enough to cook fish.)

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Santa's reached Germany!

Thanks to Google and NORAD teaming up, I have been tracking Santa's progress this year. He's reached Germany now, so time for bed soon, I think!

Update...



Of course, the actual NORAD Santa Tracker website was even better. You can even watch videos of Santa visiting various major cities and landmarks. Good to see some of the US defence budget being spent on stuff for the good of mankind.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Beyond Busted: Charlie Simpson and the fantastic Fightstar

My most recent big musical discovery is that of Fightstar Fightstar, a British rock band whose most famous member is probably Charlie Simpson, formerly of Busted.

I must confess that I don't really know a lot about Busted. My one real experience of them is hearing them sound-check, or possibly rehearse, Year 3000 prior to a gig in Dublin. What I heard was not pretty but this may have been more to do with me being outside the stadium (Lansdowne Road, as it was then,) and/or the fact that they hadn't got their sound set up than a reflection on their talent. Either way, the sound-bite combined with my natural distrust of teen "Pop punk", meant that I have avoided them ever since. This makes the discovery of the sublime Fightstar all the more surprising, as the lead member is none other than Charlie Simpson, formerly of Busted.

I can't really compare Fightstar to Busted but I suspect that the sound is very different, as Fightstar kick out proper rock tunes with heavy guitar and the occasional screeching rock scream, in addition to the more melodic singing that dominates. I find it hard to pigeon-hole bands into genres and so I am not really sure to what sub-category of rock Fightstar belong. (Wikipedia editors have opted for "alternative" or "Post-hardcore", whatever that means.) I would probably just say "Rock" or "Modern Rock", for this is no Bon Jovi either.

It was probably a short customer review on EMusic that made me take the step of having a listen. To paraphrase, it said something along the lines of:
if you like Rock music, you will like this.
I would have to agree 100%. I think that wherever you sit on the rock spectrum, Fightstar offer something. If, like me, you sit somewhere in the middle and enjoy music and influences in all directions from Pop/Rock to Metal, you will love them. The two albums that I have are the later One Day Son, This Will All Be Yours (2007) and Be Human (2009) and, if recommending just one, I would be hard-pushed to choose. (Probably "One Day Son, This Will All Be Yours", especially as you pick up a two-disc version for a bargain on Play.com!) They're both currently available from Emusic, if you want a bargain.

The other factor that made me try them, quite surprisingly, was listening to Young Pilgrim, the more recent solo album of Charlie Simpson. This is a very different beast, and is proper singer-songwriter acoustic pop rock along the lines of Jack Johnson. It's good stuff, though, and definitely marks Charlie Simpson out as an accomplished musician and singer. For me, this was important, as I find that I cannot look beyond bad singing, however good the music is. (The Wildhearts are the possible exception but their singing is not too bad and their tunes are very good!)

Monday, 19 December 2011

When snowmen go bad (Christmas graffiti)

Our walk to work takes us through Southampton Common, which features a pedestrian underpass that is a popular spot for the local graffiti artists - and many of these guys are artists, not just vandals who want to tag their turf. The fruits of their labours are not always to my taste but this one, snapped a couple of weeks ago but happily not yet sprayed over, is one of my favourites.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Cabbages of Doom: Kindle Edition out now!

My fictional folly is complete (for now) and The Cabbages of Doom is now available in a Kindle Edition too.

I thought it was going to be priced at £1.49 for the UK market but there seems to have been a glitch somewhere. I did find it a bit odd that the cheapest UK price allowed was lower than the USD or EUR prices. Oh well. If the extra 22p puts you off, the PDF and ePub versions are still only £1.44.

Over Christmas, I shall hopefully blog the full e-publishing experience. It's been interesting and I am sure I could do it better next time! (Content aside, that is.)

BBC Planet Earth/Blue Planet - Deep ocean creatures

Thanks go to the Why Evolution is True website for highlighting this video. Amazing footage of some weird and wonderful critters. (Planet Earth and Blue Planet are separate series, for those (like Michael at WEIT) wondering.)

The Cabbages of Doom, PDF version and free sample now available!

I am happy to report that a PDF edition of The Cabbages of Doom is now available along with a free sample chapter (PDF). Try before you (maybe) buy!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Polar bear dimwits should cut Attenborough (& BBC) some slack

Yesterday, I read something in the "i" that made me angry. For anyone who has missed it, presumably by misfortune of not having access to BBC, Frozen Planet is an amazing series, with spectacular footage and Sir David Attenborough at his narrative best. But, it seems, not everything on the show was quite as it appeared. Some of the polar bear footage of mother and newborn cubs was shot in a zoo.

No, this is not what made me angry. It seems that, for some strange reason, this revelation - revealed by the BBC themselves on their website - has cause furores in some circles, with cries of deceit. The Arts Editor of "i", David Lister, sticks in his own oar, saying: "An explanation on the website is simple trickery. The explanation for a television programme must be made within that television programme." The only insight provided here is that David Lister is a man with a very poor sense of perspective. Apparently, "i" stands for "idiocy" or "ignorance".

The show features a "Freeze Frame" section at the end, where they show some of the behind-the-scenes action getting the footage. For anyone paying any attention, it is blindingly obvious that the footage of animals is sometimes used out of context to aid the narrative. It would not be anywhere near as interesting otherwise. But this is not deceit, or "simple trickery", it's just good film-making. Don't tell David Lister, but some of the action used time-lapse photography - the sun didn't really speed up and circle the Earth in a few seconds.

Seriously, folks! Anyone who takes umbrage at this and thinks it should have been somehow made obvious in the program has missed the point of nature documentaries big time and doesn't deserve the genius of Attenborough and the BBC wildlife units. Ridiculous.

PS. More great polar bear stuff from the BBC here.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Cabbages of Doom has an ISBN!

The blogging has been light of late to due excessive busyness. One of the contributing factors to this has been the e-publication of The Cabbages of Doom through Lulu. I think the book itself will take a bit of time to filter through the system but it has an ISBN number now and everything!
I've also worked on a bit of cover art for the new edition. It's not a masterpiece but is certainly better than the previous, blank cover.
The story itself is essentially unchanged, but I have modified the text here and there, both to correct a few typos and remove a few bits that might not go down so well with a more general audience. (Or made me cringe at my ten-years-younger self!) There was also some reformatting for e-Readers to be done. Overall, though, I am happy.

It will be on sale for the princely sum of £1.44, which works out at 16p a chapter (or about 3p per 1000 words). Should you buy it and hate it, let me know and I will donate the portion that goes to me to a charity of your choice. If, on the other hand, you think it's a bargain, please make a donation to Cancer Research UK or the World Wildlife Fund. (I'm not endorsed by either, in case it's not obvious!)

Monday, 5 December 2011

Playmobil goes recursive

During a spot of Christmas* shopping, I came across this gem from Playmobil - it's a Playmobil Playmobil delivery truck! My only regret is that the lorry does not come with little boxes of Playmobil Playmobil delivery trucks itself: that would be truly recursive! (A bit of a missed opportunity in my book!)

[*On my iPhone, my big thumbs typed "Christmad" at first. Seems somehow appropriate when town reaches peak busyness!]

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Carcassonne: still the best board game in the world

Today, we cracked out Carcassonne for the first time this festive season.

For anyone not familiar with Carcassonne, it's a tile-laying strategy game in which you build up roads and cities and score points for having more of your men (or "meeple") associated with them when they are completed. In my opinion, it has the perfect balance of strategy and luck. The tiles are drawn at random, and so a lot can hinge on getting the right one at the right time. At the same time, however, there are clearly strategic moves to be made. Playing with more then two players can even lead to some interesting cooperative behaviour - and occasional back-stabbing - as temporary alliances form over shared goals. You can obviously sabotage other people's strategies too (a favourite move of mine is to hijack other people's cities) but I don't leave a game of Carcassonne feeling as picked on as after a game of "Settler's of Catan". I also think that the length of the game is just right. "Puerto Rico" is another great game by the the same people (I think) but I always end a game feeling like it was over one or two turns too soon.

Today, we had a bit of a rare occurrence: a finished game without any holes in the middle! When you lay tiles, roads have to match road, cities match cities and fields match fields, so clearly if you get a hole where a specific tile needs to go, you will not always come across it. Normally we play with "The River" expansion, whereas today we just used the basic starting tile, so that might have contributed to the tightness of the layout. Anyway, the end result was quite pleasing, if such things please you. (They please me!)

I'm obviously not going to go through the rules here. (See the Carcassonne Wikipedia entry for a summary. In reading this entry, I just learnt that they have changed the rules for farmers and fields, plus there's now an iOS Carcassonne App, which I will have to check out!) Suffice it to say that if you like board games - or someone you know does - and you are short of Christmas present ideas, you can do a lot worse than getting a copy of Carcassone.

If you already have Carcassonne, I can recommend a couple of the expansions, which are particularly good: Inns and Cathedrals and Traders and Builders.

HTML ASCII code

For those of you, like me, who have to write posts in HTML from time to time, a good reference of HTML coded for special ASCII characters is invaluable. The best I have found so far, is on the website of Ed Lazor (www.edlazorvfx.com). No frills, no fuss, just lots of useful HTML codes. (Although he did neglect the interrobang, "‽" - ‽.)

Hoorah for NAR!

I have a bit of a soft-spot for Nucleic Acids Research. This is partly because one of my colleagues is one of the Senior Executive Editors, and the Editorial Manager is at the desk next to mine. It is also partly because they have been kind enough to publish five of my papers, which is more than any other journal. This week, however, it is mainly because I have just received my "thank you for reviewing" present of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing from Oxford University Press, an anthology of extracts from other scientists that Richard Dawkins has chosen, along with a brief introductory spiel to each one by the man himself.

Reviewing for journals is typically a bit of a thankless task and so I really like that NAR reward their reviewers with a small gift voucher for their parent publisher. It's the little things in life that often make the difference, so well done NAR!

As for the book itself... I have only read one extract so far and I enjoyed it. I'll review the book properly once I have read a bit more. Given that, until 2008, Dawkins held the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, I expect that I am in for a treat.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Festive feline folly

It's almost December, so it's time to get the Christmas decorations ready. Arthur has kicked things off for us this year. (Not by choice, obviously!)

In the background, you can just see Mia lurking. She really wasn't sure what to make of Arthur's new attire. I'm not sure if it was the look or all the jingly bells. (Later, thanks to my wife's persistence in these matters, she got to try it out for herself.)