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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Avatar - A 3D Spectacular

Well, well, well.

If you've been reading my blogs, you might remember that I panned the use of 3D technology in the cinema.  I suggested that only childrens films are made in 3D, and the constant putting on and taking off of the 3D glasses was a nonsense.

I WAS WRONG!!!!

Today I took my eldest to see Avatar, the latest blockbuster from James Cameron, he of Terminator and Titanic fame.

Avatar, if you don't know, is the story of Jake, a paraplegic war veteran, who is brought to the planet, Pandora, which is inhabited by the Na'vi, a humanoid race with their own language and culture. Those from Earth find themselves at odds with each other and the local culture.


Humans are unable to breathe Pandora's air, but the Avatar Program enables people to link with their own Avatar, a genetically-bred human-Navi hybrid. Through his Avatar body, Jake will be able to walk again.


It's a visual feast, and the two interwoven stories work well together.


However, it's the effects and the scenery that really come into their own in this film.  Apparently, 40% of the film is 'real' with the other 60% being made inside a computer.  The thing is, it really is all 'up on the screen' to be seen.


James Cameron has been waiting for the technology to be available, to make this, and it wasn't until the Lord of the Rings trilogy that he realised this could be made.


So, back to my derision of 3D technology in the cinema.  I admit I was wrong.  The entire film is in 3D, so need to to put on and remove the glasses.  Just sit back and stare in awe at the beautifully rendered scenery, and revel in the story.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Seasonal Tidings

I'd forgotten that it's possible to blog via email. So that, wherever I am, I can drop a note, add some thoughts and generally stay in touch.

After yesterdays feast of Christmas (where we spent the day at family in Bristol), today was a slightly quieter affair.

It was nice not having to rush, to take time and relax. That was after chipping the ice away on the path so that no-one slipped.

Treacherous indeed. I sprinkled some salt, and as it landed, there was this explosion of crackling, as it started to defrost the ice. Like a huge bowl of Rice Krispies - "snap, crackle, pop".

I'm looking forward to doing not much this evening. Sitting in front of the television and catching up with some festive televisual entertainment.

Hope you're enjoying the break.
And just so you know, this was updated by email.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lewis Hamilton - A Christmas Car(ol)

As THE day approaches, I saw this, and thought of you.

This is great.



Wishing you a Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Friday, December 18, 2009

Classic Movie Review V

For the last of my review, I have chosen a staple of the British Christmas television schedules.  You can't go far wrong with "The Sound of Music".

The setting, the story, and classic Oscars & Hammerstein music and lyrics all make this an all-time favourite.

Over the years it has spawned sing-a-long versions in the cinema, and the ressurection of a stage show, from Andrew Lloyd Webber.  There was even a TV show to 'find' Maria!



Now, I wasn't born when the film was originally released, in 1965; but I do remember going to see this at the cinema, probably in the late 70s'.

Julie Andrews made the character of Maria her own; and Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp was also great.  The children are often brought out of retirement, to remember the days making the film, but many of them are no longer acting.  Indeed, I believe a couple never made another film!!  Correct me if I'm wrong.

Having said this is a staple of British Christmas television, I can't actually find it in the schedules this year - but never mind.  It's a classic whenever it's shown.  Grab yourself a mince pie, and settle down for a singsong in the company of Maria and the children.

The song "Do Re Mi" is probably the best loved, for children, as it can be sung in the round - I do remember learning it at school.

In March, more than 200 dancers were performing their version of "Do Re Mi", in the Central Station of Antwerp. with just 2 rehearsals they created this amazing stunt! These 4 fantastic minutes is a promotion stunt for a Belgian television program, where they were looking for someone to play the leading role, in the musical of "The Sound of Music" - sound familiar?




On YouTube, this has over 13 million hits.

This is the last of my reviews, before Christmas.  I hope you've enjoyed them.  If you feel like commenting, either agreeing, or disagreeing with my views / comments, then please let me know.

Have a very Merry Christmas and a Film Filled New Year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Classic Movie Review IV

This film may not be a classic, in the true sense, but it has become popular.  The film is based on Helen Fielding's wildly popular bestseller "Bridget Jones's Diary".

Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth ham it up beautifully in the absolute chick-flick.

Just watch this:



Starting on New Year's day, Bridget is hungover and 'still' single.  She decides to get a grip on life, and starts a diary.

To prepare for the role, Renee Zellweger gained 25 points, and worked at a British publishing company, for a month.  She maintained her alias and her posh English accent during this time.

If you fancy a laugh, then this will be right up your street.



Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Classic Movie Review III

Now here is a cracker.  This film is not shown very often on TV, which is a shame, because when it was released (can you believe, 20 years ago) When Harry Met Sally was a hit.


Famous for the 'I'll have what she's having' scene in the diner, the following clip shows Harry and Sally on an airport walkway, as he tries to amend the rule that men and women cannot be friends.





Here are some facts about the film:
The orgasm scene was filmed at Katz's Deli, an actual restaurant on New York's E. Houston Street. The table at which the scene was filmed now has a plaque on it that reads, "Congratulations! You're sitting where Harry met Sally.


In the 1990 Academy Awards, the film was nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay written directly for the screen, for Nora Ephron.
Also, in 1990, Billy Crystal won the American Comedy Award for Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (leading man).  Meg Ryan also won for Funniest Actress.


You could class this as a 'chick flick'; but to be honest, it's an all-round feel-good film.  With the Christmas and New Year theme, it's a great film to watch at this time of year.


I'm sure you've seen it, but if you haven't, take a look; you'll enjoy it.




Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Classic Movie Review II

In the 2nd of my series of Classic Christmas films, you already know that one of my all time favourite films is the 1946 classic "It's A Wonderful Life" by Frank Capra.

Every year I make a point of watching it, (with the Kleenex handy of course!)  It's wonderfully funny, sad, poignant and romantic.



Here's a clip:




It's quite a long film, at 130 minutes, with James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.  Despite being set around Christmas, it was filmed during a heat wave. It got to be so hot that Frank Capra gave everyone a day off to recuperate.

The story of George Bailey, who feels useless and decides the world will be a better place without him, is a strange choice for a Christmas film.  However, this film has a real and important message about how our lives touch others, and it deals with issues like poverty and freedom and sacrifice.

I haven't seen the recently released colourised version, and I'm not such a purist that I think it should have been left alone.  Having said that, whether black and white or colour, it is beautifully written and directed, and the arrival of Clarence, and his 'mini story' really brings it together.

Nominated for 5 Oscars at the 1947 Academy Awards, including Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Director and Best Picture; it never actually won; but that doesn't detract from the film that it is.

With wonderful characters, great cast and uplifiting message, this truly is a Wonderful Christmas Classic.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Classic Movie Review

Tis the season to watch films.  Each year, at this time, broadcasters tempt us with their cinematic fare.  Back in September, I wrote a post about 'Movie Magic' and I thought this would be a good opportunity to review some more of my favourites.  Films that warm the cockles of your heart and are good, no nonsense, fun.

Last night I watched a film I love.

From 1973 (but set in the mid 30s) this film stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Robert Shaw.

"The Sting", in case you've never heard of it, is the story of a small time crook (Robert Redford) and a veteran con man (Paul Newman) who are looking for revenge on the crime lord (Robert Shaw) who has murdered one of their gang.
This is classed as a comedy caper, however, the story, and the clever twist at the end makes for one of the greatest double-crosses in movie history.



This trailer doesn't really do it justice - it's a cracking story, brilliantly made, with some of the best music in a film.  The ragtime style was first introduced around 1910; twenty years before the time this film is set.  Theoretically, this shouldn't have worked, but since a lot of the film is without dialogue, the music totally sums up the mood.

One of my all time favourite pieces of music is "The Entertainer", which is the theme to this film.

Another interesting point to note; whilst the story is set in Chicago, the mayor in 1973 wouldn't allow any films to be made there, that portrayed the city in a bad light.  He finally allowed the producers three days to film.


Much of the film was made on the back-lot at Universal Studios and the diner in which Hooker meets Lonnegan is the same diner interior used in Back To The Future (1985) in which Marty McFly first meets his father and calls Doc Brown.

The film was recognised for it's greatness in winning 7 Academy Awards in 1974; including George Roy Hill for Best Director and the overall Best Picture accoldade.

If you haven't seen this, then treat yourself; I promise you won't be disappointed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Electricity Monitor - UPDATE

On Wednesday I wrote about my new gadget - the electricity monitor.

Now that it's been in operation for a couple of days, I thought I'd give a first review of how it's going.


As I wrote, the installation is quite easy.  The supplied clip is attached to the red mains cable.  It's perfectly safe to do, there is no requirement for electrical knowledge or qualifications.  You can seen mine attached here.

The cable then connects to the wireless transmitter (seen here) and from there the information is transmitted to the display.

The display shows a number of different pieces of information.

The large number is the current (excuse the pun!) cost; in pence, per hour.  This fluctuates, and you can immediately see the difference when you switch on the kettle (for example).  This morning it jumped from 5p to 20p just to make a cup of tea.  The important thing is to only boil what you need, and not a full kettle - that way the cost reduces as soon as the boiling is complete.

Other information, seen here is the accumulative cost, since starting transmitting.  Here it shows £4.19 - which is the approximate cost of electricity used since Tuesday evening.  The current temperature is shown (although this has no bearing on anything other than giving information - unless your heating is electric) and the time.

The time is important if you have more than one price tariff during the day.  You can then set the cost within the unit, and the price will automatically change to the relevant tariff, giving a more accurate indication of cost.

There are other displays available, such as the amount of energy used - accumulative, this is showing 36Kwh since Tuesday evening; with a approx 0.5kw per hour being used.

From a greenhouse gas perspective, the unit informs me that we have used 0.0154 tonnes of CO2, which equates to 0.215Kg per hour!!

All in all, this does make one a little paranoid; however, it's an impressive unit, and we are now working, pro-actively, to drive down the cost of our electricity usage.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Save Energy - Get an OWL

Everyday we are bombarded by news of increasing greenhouse gases, climate change, ever increasing energy costs - it's all doom and gloom.
Not in our house.  Oh no...
Yesterday I purchased an energy monitor.  To be more accurate a wireless electricity monitor.
No more guessing - this is the real deal.

Let me explain how it works.

  1. The clip sensor, provided, is attached quite easily to the main supply cable (the red one) that goes into your electricity meter.
  2. This sensor is the attached to a wireless transmitter.(Batteries supplied)
  3. The transmitter sends data to the display unit (up to 30m away) every 2 minutes.
  4. The display unit receives and displays data on a large, easy to read LCD screen.

The information displayed includes:

  • The cost of electricity used
  • Electricity in Kwh
  • Greenhouse gas display
  • Temperature

You can set up to 4 electricity charges and set them across the day, so that it calculates, quite accurately, your actual spend.  For ease of use, I've calculated and average price, across peak and off-peak.

The monitor I bought is an OWL Wireless Electricity Monitor and to quote the blurb:
"This unit provides up to the second information on the amount of electricity you are using in terms of power, cost and your carbon footprint.  This means you can see in real time the benefits of turning off electrical devices at home.  Whether it's turning off at the plug rather than just using standby, or simply turning off a light, OWL shows you the cash impact of changing your habits and behaviours which could amount to savings of hundreds of pounds per year."

As I've already mentioned, it's very simple to install and get started.  What I do like is the ability to purchase a USB Connect device.  This is an add on tool, which, in conjunction with the transmitter, when the USB device is plugged into your PC, it will stream real time data to the supplied software, allowing you to track your electricity usage.  This seems a little bit extreme, and I think paranoia could soon set in!!

The monitor is a very neat device and at less than £40, I believe this could be recouped quite quickly.

Having looked at recent bills, I've worked out that we're spending approximately £3 per day in electricity.  That gives us a target to work towards - I think it's going to get quite tense!!

I'm not trying to sell it, just give my initial opinion.  However, I was pleased to note that this has achieved "Best Buy" status from the consumer organisation Which?

If you're looking for a good Christmas present, or are interested in reducing your own costs, this is a terrific unit, which will definitely help do the job.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

My Family Search

You may remember that I wrote a blog about researching my family history.  A sort of personal "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Over the last couple of weeks I made some progress in finding out some information, and had some great conversations with my dad about his father and aunt.  I also, finally, found the census proving the existence of my great-grandfather.  Not that I disputed his existence, but it was slightly un-nerving not being able to 'find' him.

Using websites, like Ancestry.co.uk or findmypast.com, makes it easier to search records, and I found immigration papers showing my great-aunt leaving for America, as well as the incoming passenger lists when she returned, not once, but twice, on a transatlantic liner (Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, if you're interested).

I then discovered she arrived in Liverpool, on returning from South Africa, where she had stayed with her mother for a period during the war.

Researching family history is akin to a good detective novel.  The more you delve and dig, the more you can uncover; and the more you can start to learn about how people lived.  Not fictional characters, but real people.  People who are related to you.

It's a great project, and one that can never, really, be completed.  Many of the characters have left us, but with what we have, and making a conscious effort to remember, this is a life-long project that will provide family history for generations to come.

The family story is ever-evolving, with new chapters being written each and every day.

You can read my previous article here - "Who Do You Think I Am?"

Friday, November 27, 2009

Annual Insurance Renewal

It's the time of year when the house insurance is due for renewal.
A couple of weeks ago the renewal notice dropped onto the mat, and when I opened it, I almost fainted.  OK - that's a little dramatic, but the premium had increased OVER £200 on the previous year!

Shall I tell you who it is?  Mm.... I'll think about it.

Anyway, this got me thinking.  Why?
There has been one claim this year. Maybe that was it - although it seemed a bit steep.

I then remembered the 'trick' I learned, through car insurance renewals. If you re-apply online, as a brand new customer, you'll be offered the 'new customer' price.  Apparently, they're more important than existing customers!

The quote I was given online was £150 cheaper than my renewal.  Scandalous.  Using my loyal business to fund new customers.

Why should I bother to be loyal to them, when they can't show the same loyalty back?

Not to be out-done, I also tried the various comparison websites. 
Then, and this is the magical bit.  I phoned the insurance company.  The conversation went something like this:

"Thank you for calling ....  If your call is regarding your current policy or renewal, please press 1"

I pressed 1.

"Good evening, are you calling about your renewal?"

"Yes, I'd like to discuss the premium"

"One moment sir, I'll put you through to a special team we've set up to handle the hundreds of enquiries we get about renewal premiums.!!!"
OK - not the exact words, but they may as well have been.  There is a department dedicated to deal with the calls from upset, existing, customers regarding their premiums.

No more than 5 minutes later and my renewal was £215 less.  Under £400.

Why oh why Mr and Mrs Insurance Company do you put us through it?

Covered for another year, for less than before!!

The insurance company involved don't advertise via comparison websites.... helps to keep their prices down, apparently!

Who are they?  They have a red telephone, and little red mouse; on wheels!!

Friday, November 20, 2009

LinkedIn - What's The Fuss?

I decided that it's time for another review, and today it's all about LinkedIn.





LinkedIn is a business-orientated social networking site, that was launched in May 2003, and today has over 50 million registered (11 million of which are in Europe).


The purpose of the site is to allow registered users to maintain a list of contact details of people they know and trust in business. The people in the list are called Connections. Users can invite anyone (whether a site user or not) to become a connection.


Once you have established some connections, you can use them in various ways.  A common use is to request recommendations.  A personal recommendation speaks volumes to potential business colleagues.  Potential employers or customers can't argue with it.  It's of mutual benefit, and your network can soon grow.


For example, I have 226 direct connections, which link me to over 1.75million people.  In other words, through people I know, there is a connection already established to an enormous number of contacts.  I can search the database to find potential customers.


There are applications available too, which allow you to add value to your presence on the site.  Things like "Reading List by Amazon" where you can let people know what you're reading.  You can run polls, upload Google presentations, and most recently, it is now possible to tweet updates too.


For the most part, LinkedIn is free to use.  However, for big business user, to advertise jobs, and make extensive use of the messaging facilities, it is possible to upgrade.  It's not cheap though, and, unless it can be justified, is really only for major businesses.


I got my current contract through LinkedIn.  Obviously the quality of my work, and my work ethic was important, but without LinkedIn, I would never have been given the opportunity I have now.


If you've not seen it, take a look.  It costs nothing to look, and there's everything to gain.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Aunty Does It Again

Last weekend I wrote about the BBC bringing a version of its iPlayer to the Nintendo Wii.

It was released yesterday, and last night I installed the BBC iPlayer on the console.  I have to say, it's rather good.

It's extremely usable, and even though it's a wireless connection, the picture and sound quality was superb.  There was no lag, and I didn't experience any buffering problems.  This made for a flawless playback.

The interface is different to that on a PC, mainly because you need to use the Wii Remote to interact; therefore the buttons are large,  but it seems like the complete choice is there.

Obviously, on this version it's not possible to download a programme to watch at a later date; there's no storage facility on the Wii.  This is a small price to pay, and undoubtably, this will bring more viewers to the iPlayer.

For parents, there is also parental controls, so children can be prevented from watching anything they shouldn't.

Well done BBC.

National Freelancers Day

I'm a Freelancer.


The dictionary definition is:
  1. free-lance or free-lancer - a self-employed person working, or available to work, for a number of businesses, rather than be committed to one, and usually hired for a limited period.
  2. free lance or free lancer - a mercenary soldier in medieval Europe.
Now, I certainly don't believe I'm a mercenary soldier, however, I am available to work for a number of businesses, under contract to them.  My contracts are usually 3-monthly; in other words, I am either extended by the company, or my contract may not be renewed.


I work in the I.T. sphere of business, and the terminology commonly refers to us as 'contractors'.  There are many other terms; "interim", "independent worker", "consultant".


Freelancers provide a flexible, scalable workforce that is vital to supporting the fundamental competitiveness of the UK economy, allowing companies to manage risk and changing patterns of work in a fluctuating and often volatile market.


Freelancers come in a variety of guises from ‘sole trader’ to partnership to limited companies.  Most are workers who have chosen to be, ‘in business on their own account’, prepared to take the risks associated with being in business and hoping to enjoy the benefits of success.


You may have noticed the banner on the right-hand side of the page, advertising National Freelancers Day.





To support this, PCG would like to invite you to share your views on the evolving profile of Freelancers, their achievements, their personal experiences and their relationship with business leaders and permanent employees.  To take part in the survey, click the above link.


There will also be events up and down the country, I'll be attending the one in Manchester, to offer my support.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

BBC iPlayer On The Wii

Take two of the most popular entertainment 'channels' and put them together and what have you got?  A box of tricks that really does the job.

Last year, the BBC made their iPlayer available to watch via the internet channel on the Nintendo Wii.
Since its launch on the console, the iPlayer has been a roaring success, with over 900,000 downloads.

From next Wednesday, iPlayer will be available to download as a channel in its own right, on the Nintendo Wii.  With nearly six million Wii consoles throughout the country, that's a lot of extra potential downloads.

So how did they do it?  Pay attention, this is the science part:
The technical challenges were many. The technical teams had to optimise and innovate in every part of the technical chain to make iPlayer work on an embedded device. Due to the limited processing power and memory available on these types of devices, most of the effort went into optimising data requests, minimising client side processing, reducing network traffic and balancing the remaining processing power available for video decoding with interface and interaction features. (extract from BBC Internet Blog)

As a licence payer, I think it's important that the BBC makes it's programmes as accessible as possible, to allow each and everyone to watch.
The full press release can be found here.
Personally, I'm quite excited about this.  I'm easily pleased.
Will you be watching programmes on the Wii?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remote Control #F1

The season may be over,  but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy some action.  This is one of many viral advertising campaigns, and you'll have to watch to the end to see who it's from.

It doesn't matter - this is a highly entertaining video. (Well, I thought so).


Monday, November 09, 2009

I Love Lunch! The Musical

The guys from Improv Anywhere have done it again.  Recorded inside Trump Tower, New York, this is one of their best yet.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Winter of Discontent

Yesterday I wrote about my experience of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and how I almost self-diagnosed the problem.

I make no apology for extracting the following from the the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association website. They're the professionals, so why re-write the information. 


What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (or S.A.D.)?

SAD is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated 7% of the UK population every winter between September and April, in particular during December, January and February.

It is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.

For many people SAD is a seriously disabling illness, preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment.

For others, it is a mild but debilitating condition causing discomfort but not severe suffering. We call this subsyndromal SAD or 'winter blues.' It is estimated that a further 17% of the UK population have this milder form of condition.

Most sufferers show signs of a weakened immune system during the winter, and are more vulnerable to infections and other illnesses.

SAD symptoms disappear in spring, either suddenly with a short period (e.g. four weeks) of hypomania or hyperactivity, or gradually, depending on the intensity of sunlight in the spring and early summer.

In sub-syndromal SAD, symptoms such as tiredness, lethargy, sleep and eating problems occur, but depression and anxiety are absent or mild.
SAD may begin at any age but the main age of onset is between 18 and 30 years.
SAD occurs throughout the northern and southern hemispheres but is extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees of the Equator, where daylight hours are long, constant and extremely bright.

Light Therapy

Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 per cent of diagnosed cases. That is, exposure, for up to four hours per day (average 1-2 hours) to very bright light, at least ten times the intensity of ordinary domestic lighting.

Ordinary light bulbs and fittings are not strong enough. Average domestic or office lighting emits an intensity of 200-500 lux but the minimum dose necessary to treat SAD is 2500 lux, The intensity of a bright summer day can be 100,000 lux.

Light treatment should be used daily in winter (and dull periods in summer) starting in early autumn when the first symptoms appear. It consists of sitting two to three feet away from a specially designed light box, usually on a table, allowing the light to shine directly through the eyes.

The user can carry out normal activity such as reading, working, eating and knitting while stationary in front of the box. It is not necessary to stare at the light although it has been proved safe.

Treatment is usually effective within three or four days and the effect continues provided it is used every day. Tinted lenses, or any device that blocks the light to the retina of the eye, should not be worn.

Some light boxes emit higher intensity of light, up to 10,000 lux, which can cut treatment time down to half an hour a day.

Anti-Depressant Drugs

Traditional antidepressant drugs such as tricyclics are not usually helpful for SAD as they exacerbate the sleepiness and lethargy that are symptoms of the illness. The non-sedative SSRI drugs such as sertraline (Lustral), paroxetine (Seroxat) and fluoxetine (Prozac) are effective in alleviating the depressive symptoms of SAD and combine well with light therapy.

Other psychotropic drugs e.g. lithium, benzodiazepines have not proved widely useful in the treatment of SAD.

About SADA

The SAD Association is a voluntary organisation and registered charity founded in 1987 to support and advise people with SAD and inform the public and health professionals about the condition.
SADA is self-financing and receives no government funding.

SADA is the world's longest surviving support organisation for SAD. Membership subscriptions form the financial basis of the charity and help to fund the paid administrator. Enquiries are received from individuals with SAD, health professionals and organisations, employers, educational institutions, local authorities and many more. Since it was set up, SADA has dramatically raised the awareness of SAD in the UK.

SADA's aim is to ensure that SAD is recognised and accepted in every part of the UK, and that those with SAD can maintain a productive life with the support of doctors, employers, family and friends.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Winter Blues

I want to tell you a story.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin....

I have always said that I'm a summer person.  Maybe it's because I was born in July.  I like the bright sunny mornings, late evening sunsets; and, hopefully, the sunshine in-between.

Like most people, I'm not a great fan of winter.  Dark, cold, icy, wet, windy, miserable days.  Oh, sure it's not bad to look at from the warmth of home, watching the trees being blustered about and the rain lashing down against the windows.  The logfire burning in the fireplace, lights turned dow..... oh, please!!
The reality is, it's dark, cold, unpleasant, and no-one enjoys it.

A couple of years ago, around this time, I started feeling down.  I mean really down. I just wanted to curl up and be left alone.  I couldn't concentrate on anything.  Reading a book (something which I love doing) was hard work. Actually going to work was no pleasure.  I also had a constant headache.

I couldn't put it down to anything in particular.  I knew it was happening,  but didn't know why!  I did know that they were the classic symptoms of depression, but I didn't want to take any medication.  This was a sudden onset, and I wanted to see what happened.

I decided to visit the doctor, who was happy enough to sign me off work for 2 weeks; for stress.
I told friends and family I was working from home.  They know me as a happy, cheerful kinda guy, and this would have worried them.

During those two weeks, I had an epiphany.  I was going to give up my job and "go it alone".  I spent the days researching business, speaking to agencies, planning my new start.

With my two weeks almost over, and still feeling depressed, I went back to the doctor, who had no hesitation in prescribing me another fortnight.  That took me to the end of January.  By the end of the month, I had created my business, written my letter of resignation and was all set to go.

Still, I had no idea what was wrong.  Sub-consciously I started to feel brighter, maybe because I had made such a life changing decision.

At the end of February, I left the company I had spent 13 years working for and 3 days later I started life as an independent freelancer.

You'll notice that it's almost springtime.  The mornings were brighter, and so was my mood.

************************
Following those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, we'll now jump forward until the end of 2008.
The beginning of December, in fact.

Once again, my mood deteriorated.  I was cold, wanted to be alone, and at times just wanted to cry.  My headaches had returned.  Now I was stumped.  I recognised this was a repeat of the last year, and I realised that it couldn't be because of my work.  I'm my own boss now, something that I love.

What the hell was it?

I remembered hearing about Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) and did some research into what it is, and how to deal with it.

Another trip to the doctor later (and this time not wanting time off work, or medication) he agreed that it sounded very much like it.  He suggested the use of a light box; to help boost the hormones that keep me 'up'.

The lamps I had seen were big and unwieldy. I wanted something small and unobtrusive.  The lamp I use is shown here, and it's portable enough to fit into a small bag.  It has been a life-changer.

I started to use it again, last week, to combat the dark mornings since the clocks changed.  I can honestly say that I have no feelings of depression.  I'm not curling up, I don't feel chilly and I'm not ready to burst into tears.  No headaches either.

I still don't like winter. But at least I can now get through it with a smile on my face.

Next time, I'll write about S.A.D. in more detail.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Part Three - McLaren Technology Centre

OK, here we are.

It's 6pm on Friday, there's a queue of traffic ahead as we waited to enter the grounds of the McLaren Technology Centre.  You had to be on another planet not to know that Lewis Hamilton was crowned the World Champion in 2008, taking the points he needed at the last race of the season in Brazil.

Following a competition run by Vodafone (the title sponsor of the McLaren racing team), I, along with 299 other people were invited to visit the home of McLaren, and see where the 'magic' takes place.

This was an unprecedented opportunity to enter the confines of a centre of excellence. A place which is clean, tidy and represents an organisation that is totally focussed on winning.

Once inside, with a drink (non-alcoholic of course) we wandered the main boulevard; the cars beckoning us into their home.  Professional photographers were on hand to take pictures of us with the Championship winning car, and trophy; having a go at beating the clock in a pit stop challenge; or even standing on the top step of the podium, with Lewis and Heikki.

Then there were the workshops.  The work areas; almost goldfish-bowl like, behind glass, the workers busying away, as we stood in awe.
Cars stood, on their plinths, their insides on show.



We were also treated to snacks and drinks in the staff canteen. Except, this is no ordinary canteen.  Every detail thought through carefully.

The Star in the Formula 1 Car arrived, driving along the main path to the front entrance. The sound of the engine, permeating the large windows, as he 'roared' towards us.

When Lewis Hamilton stepped out of the car, he was greeted to shouts and cheers from a very appreciative crowd.

After an interview on stage, talking about the 2009 season; and once the lucky 20 were selected to a private meeting with the World Champion, Lewis re-appeared to launch the latest Vodafone promotion; Vodafone 360.

A few more questions and he was gone; off to prepare for this weekends Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi.

We were left to have a final wander, stare wide-eyed at the extensive trophy cabinets and cars, before we were taken back to our cars.

It was an unforgettable, money-can't-buy experience.

I hope I've managed to convey the excitement.  If you want to know more, then drop me a line.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Part Two - Brooklands

A short walk from Mercedes Benz World is the home of British motorsport - Brooklands.

Excuse me if I copy from their Trail Guide:

"Brooklands is unique.  The World's first purpose-built motor circuit, constructed at Weybridge, Surrey, by wealthy landowner Hugh Locke King in 1907, was more than a great sporting arena.
Brooklands was the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation and the site of many engineering and technological achievements throughout eight decades of the 20th century.


The museum displays a wide range of Brooklands-related motoring and aviation exhibits, ranging from giant racing cars such as the 24 litre Napier-Railton (see picture), to a unique collection of Vickers/BAC built aircraft - Wellington, Viking, Varsity, Viscount, Vanguard VC10 and Concorde."


The museum is located in one corner of the race-track, inside the Members' Banking, the steepest section of the track, nearly 29ft high, before it curves on to the Railway Straight.
On the right is a picture of a 1924 35HP Long Chassis Tourer from Aston Martin.  
This particular car was rescued from scrap in 1939, and it's chassis used for a tractor for the Home Guard during WW2.  It has since been restored to its original condition, one of only two vintage Aston Martin tourers that 'survive'.

There is also a Grand Prix exhibition, including this McLaren Honda show car from 1991, as driven by Ayrton Senna.

Which leads me very nicely onto the next part of the day.

The purpose of my journey from Manchester to Woking.

Our visit to the McLaren Technology Centre, and a chance to see reigning Formula 1 World Champion - Lewis Hamilton.

You'll have to wait until tomorrow though!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Part One - Free Text Friday

"Ladies and gentleman, please give a huge, warm welcome to the current Formula 1 World Champion, Lewis Hamilton...!"

Wow! Was I really here? This sort of thing never happens to me.  I never get to do exciting things like this; well, not without paying for them!

Let me take you back to the beginning, which wasn't long ago.  Only a couple of weeks in fact.

I, like millions of others, received a marketing email from Vodafone, inviting me to register for free Formula 1 text updates for the rest of the season.

Nothing amazing there, and since they were free, I accepted.

What I had failed to notice, or at the least, register, was the line at the end that said all registrations to Free Text Friday would be entered into a prize draw, to win a trip to the McLaren Technology Centre.  The Mecca for McLaren fans worldwide.

So, it was with amazement when I got a text message telling me I was one of the chosen few (hundred!) and the date was set at 23rd October.

Now; I live in Manchester.  McLaren are based in Woking.  A not insurmountable journey, but a long way to go for 3 hours, on a Friday evening.  I called my dad, who also enjoys his racing, and asked him if he'd like to join me.  We then arranged for a day out that would be the envy of many car enthusiasts.

First stop Mercedes Benz World, in Weybridge.  It's what can only be described as a super-sized showroom, with service centre.  Except, it's on 3 floors, and houses historic Mercedes Benz cars, restaurant and cafe, as well as the opportunity to experience Mercedes like never before, on their own track.

This S 65 AMG (on the right) has a price tag of £155,844. 7G-Tronic, 7-speed automatic; 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds.  I ordered two!!


There were also some older models on display; which made for some nostalgic viewing.

Across the road is Brooklands.  The world's first purpose-built motor racing circuit, also at Weybridge, was built in 1907.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you all about it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lewis Hamilton - F1 Overtakes

Before I post my next blog about my visit to McLaren, here's a taster of what Lewis Hamilton is all about...

Teaser...

Last Friday was a dream day out.  Well for motor-racing and Formula 1 fans anyway!

After being selected as a winner by Vodafone, I (along with 600 others) was invited to visit the McLaren Technology Centre, and to see Lewis Hamilton.

Wow! Amazing!  A real, money-can't-buy experience.

I'm going to make this story last, and break it into small chapters, the first of which will appear tomorrow; but here's one photo, just to give you a taster.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day - Climate Change



I signed up to take part in Blog Action Day because I believe we can all do our 'bit' for making the planet a cleaner, greener place to be.

It's seems whoever you talk to, everyone agrees that action needs to be taken, but when it comes to it, no-one does. People always think that someone else will do something, but, if we all take that attitude, as usual, nothing will get done.

There has been plenty of preaching in the past, from companies telling us how we should cut down on car journeys, stop flying in planes... you know the kind of thing.

There is another way to look at this.  Instead of telling us how we could save the planet, why not tell us how much we could actually save in pounds, shillings and pence? (OK, just pounds and pence!!)

By not owning a car, we could save on insurance, tax, running costs and fuel. 

"Not practical" many people respond.  I agree.  I travel to work, and it would be almost impossible not to drive.  However, I have stopped using the car for short journeys.  I'll take the bus - it's convenient and saves the hassle with parking too.
"But the bus costs money?"  Yes, it does, but not much, and the tank of fuel in my car will last longer between refills.

Then there's the train.  There are some terrific bargains to be had, if you can book in advance, plus the facilities are not bad these days.  I'm beginning to sound like an advert for public transport!!!

If you have to drive, do it economically.  Slowly does it, and the fuel will last longer, and you'll be less stressed when you arrive.

What else?  Well, there's the cost in the home. 

Heating, lighting, television - there is so much that consumes power, how can we reduce the overall burden on our bank balance as well as the planet?

Turn off the TV properly - that little red standby light only serves to draw attention in a darkened room.
Sky have already taken the initiative by placing the Sky box into standby at 11pm (if not in use) and still programmes will be recorded.  That's a saving.

Heating - OK, so we're approaching winter, and even I like to be warm and cosy, especially after a day at work, and driving in the dark cold nights.  But consider only having the heating coming on up to an hour before you get home.  Why heat an empty house?

Also, if it's just you, wear a warm jumper.  I'm not being stingy here, it can make all the difference, and I don't see why I should pay my hard-earned crust to the fat cats at the energy company.

As for washing - the powder companies are stressing the use of lower temperatures.  If you're clothes aren't heavily soiled, then go for it.  In reducing the temperature, you also reduce the amount of time the machine needs to be on; a further saving.

Lights too. Turn them off when you're not in the room.  I'm a stickler for it, but it makes sense.  Most of us are taught it when we're younger, and now we pay the bills, we understand why.

Also, keep curtains closed, where possible, to help retain the heat.

So, can I derive a 10-point plan for saving money and the planet?
  1. Walk wherever possible - it's good for you too
  2. Use public transport
  3. Drive slowly to preserve your fuel - the longer between fillups, the more you'll save
  4. Turn off the air-conditioning in the car - that will also save fuel
  5. In your home, switch off unused appliances at the mains
  6. Keep curtains closed, to help retain the heat
  7. Only put the heating on when you're at home
  8. Turn off lights when not in the room
  9. Wear a jumper - you can then turn the heating off a little earlier
  10. Wash clothes at a lower temperature - it'll also save time.
 I know that not everyone will agree on all of these, however, as a talking point, it's a start.  But, seriously, even if you only consider half of the above measures, it will have a positive impact, both on the environment and your bank balance.

Thanks for reading.  You can find out more, and read other peoples views at http://www.blogactionday.org/

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Films made in 3D are gimmicks. Discuss.

Wow! My last post really set the cat amongst the pidgeons!!  Not only through the comments, but verbally as well!! Lucky I have broad shoulders!!

Apparently 3D films are not gimmicks!!  Having said that, why are the only films made in 3D aimed, quite squarely, at the children's market?

I'm not sure a deep, thoughtful film, or action / thriller would have quite the same impact if it were made in 3D.  The audience would be too busy putting on and taking off the 'goggles' at the relevant sequences; and, I think miss much of the film in the process.

So, whilst I am the first to try new technology, and applaud the film-makers for doing something different; until I can sit in the cinema and watch a film, without having to (a) wear special glasses and (b) looking for the on-screen markers to tell me when to do so, then I will watch, and hopefully enjoy, the 2D version.

You're welcome to comment further.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Disney Pixar - UP



Adventure is Out There

What a delightful film.  Once again, Disney and Pixar have delivered.  This is the 10th outing for the animation studio, hot on the heels of Wall-E, Cars, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc etc.

"Up" is the story of Carl, an elderly curmudgeon, who refuses to leave the house he built with his wife, Ellie, as a huge building project takes place around him.  After a lovely, and moving, 10 minute intro to the film, the adventure gets underway.

Enter Russell, the boy scout, who needs his "Assisting the Elderly" badge, and has a hard time convincing Carl to let him help.  When he does, things really pick up apace.

As we've come to expect from Pixar, the story is told on many levels, the adults getting as much from it as the children.  It's also the first Pixar film to be released in a 3D version.  I saw the 2D, and to be honest, whilst I could imagine where the 3D sequences would be, it's not necessary.  I still feel that 3D is a gimic.

The animation is outstanding, the sets, lighting and artwork all perfectly realised, the characters are well-formed and the soundtrack (again, Michael Giacchino) is lovely.

Pixar are on the 'Up' again, with the recent 3D release of Toy Story.  Toy Story 2 is due in the New Year, and later next year will see the brand new Toy Story 3.

You can see the trailer here, and if you like the picture at the top of this post; it's unique.  I created it on the 'Up' website.  Why not create your own?

Finally - when you go to see the film, don't be late, there is a Pixar short, shown just before the main film, which is wonderful.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The new Doctor Who logo

The BBC has released the new Doctor Who logo, which will be seen from next year, when the new series is launched.



What do you think? Like it?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hakuna Matata - It Means No Worries....



Bet you're smiling now....

Remember September

That's it.  Another month is disappearing down the hole in the middle.
  1. It was the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII
  2. The European Union bans the manufacture or import of 100 watt incandescent light bulbs, beginning a phase-out in favour of energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps
  3. American pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson was laid to rest at a private ceremony during a sunset service in a mausoleum at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, USA.
  4. Australia experiences its warmest August on record amid soaring winter temperatures.
  5. Kraft Foods Inc. says it will pursue a takeover of Cadbury Plc after the British maker of Trident gum and Dairy Milk rejected a $16.7 billion bid.
  6. "Beatles Day" is celebrated worldwide as remastered versions of The Beatles' albums are released, as well as The Beatles: Rock Band.
  7. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologises for the post-war treatment of celebrated WWII code-breaker Alan Turing, who was chemically castrated for having homosexual relations.
  8. In football, Germany beat England 6–2 in the UEFA Women's Euro 2009 final, claiming their seventh European title. (see Sarah's blog about women in football)
  9. American actor Patrick Swayze dies at age 57, after suffering from pancreatic cancer for more than 1 year.
  10. Singer Vera Lynn, aged 92, becomes the oldest artist to obtain a number one album in the United Kingdom.
  11. Sir Alex Ferguson, Gary Lineker and Fabio Capello are among 1,000 guests at a memorial service held for Sir Bobby Robson, a former England manager described as "one of football's best-loved figures" who coached clubs to titles in Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain and England.
  12. The cities of Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane in Australia are covered by a dust storm, the worst in at least 70 years. Aviation in New South Wales is disrupted.
  13. The United Kingdom's largest haul of Anglo-Saxon treasure, a collection of 1,500 gold and silver pieces comparable to the Book of Kells, is discovered buried beneath a field in Staffordshire.
  14. Poland approves a law making chemical castration mandatory for paedophiles.
  15. Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown denies rumours concerning his health as the British Labour Party gathers for its conference in Brighton, expressing his amazement with Andrew Marr of the BBC for questioning him live on television.
  16. An award-winning essay written by Paul McCartney as a 10-year-old for the coronation of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom is found after lying undiscovered in Liverpool's Central Library for more than 50 years.
  17. Oxfam launches an emergency appeal for £9.5 million for Ethiopia and other East African countries to fight the worst drought in a decade.
So there you have it.  A busy, varied and interesting round-up of some of the key stories of the month.

What will October have in store?

What will I write about?  Do you really care?


Information gathered from Wikipedia

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Oscars 2009 - Opening Performance

Following on from my movie post, I thought I'd give you the opening to this years Oscar ceremony, performed by Hugh Jackman.  I loved this, and if you missed it, you might enjoy it to.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Decisions, Decisions!

I realise that my posts tend to roll around, with no specific direction; covering an eclectic mix of subjects like:
The question is, what now?  Do I pick a specific subject to concentrate on, or should I continue as I am, just writing about the 'stuff I do and like'?

I find the world of blogs fascinating; there are blogs for everything; technology, sport, finance, cooking, movies, and everything in-between.

I could join the fray, but I'm not master of one - more a little knowledge about a lot.
So, I've made up my mind, and I'm going to continue the way I am - moving around, keeping you on your toes!

Therefore, my next subject will be films. Or movies. Call them what you will.

There is something magical (no matter how cliched) about movies.  That feeling, when sitting in the cinema, of the anticipation of what I'm about to watch.

In my next post I'll write about some of the films that have had an impact on me, and others that I wish I just hadn't bothered.

It's truly subjective, and I'm sure we'll disagree on some.  Don't judge me by my taste in films (but I'll tell you now, I don't like horror).

So, to borrow that well used phrase; "See you at the movies"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Do you really want to pay more tax?

The government, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that they will charge all landline owners 50p per month for the priviledge of using the phone. That's an extra £6 per year that you and I will be taxed!!

They claim that this will raise £175m annually, which will enable them to invest in future telephony networks. They seem to have forgotten the people with phones, but don't use the internet.

This seems, to me, that this is a way to nationalise the internet and is totally unacceptable.

I have created this poll to try to gauge reaction - it's just for fun, and I'll publish the results next week.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Who Do You Think I Am?

The BBC hit "Who Do You Think You Are?" has done wonders for the genealogy business.
About 4 years ago I decided to pull together my family tree.  More out of interest than anything else, and having asked a couple of questions, I decided it would be fun to see what I could find.  All this was before I had even heard of the BBC programme

It's fascinating learning about your history.  The little bit of history in which you come from and are part of.  I suppose the immediate history is the easy bit.  Been there, done that.  The memories are all mine.

But what about before I was born? 
Before my parents were born? 
Where did my grandparents come from?
Where did my great-grandparents come from?
What were their jobs?
Where did they live?

Starting with now and working backwards, I built a tree, using my knowledge and asking my parents.  Who were their grandparents, could they remember anything about them?  Where did they live? etc. etc....

As with projects like this, I eventually hit a brick wall, so to speak. 

I needed to get more information, but the sources had, well, died!

I then created an account at Ancestry.co.uk, to search more deeply.

It was a bit like the BBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" except I'm not famous.  Nor do I have the resources available to me, like the people in various libraries, who have pre-researched the information for the celebrities!

Ancestry.co.uk is a rich source of information, if you know where to look and how to search.  There is a lot of useful, helpful, knowledge available, and seeing the pages from an 1891 census, for example, started to bring my family to life.

My father's parents were born in England, but their parents were born in Russia.  With information from my dad, I discovered that his paternal grandfather was a cobbler (you always need shoes!) and I then found his entry in Kellys Directory (from 1912).

On my mother's side, due to a piece of good fortune, I even managed to find out the maiden name of my great-great-grandmother.  With that information, I then found her father - my great-great-great grandfather. Amazing.

I haven't been so lucky with other family members, yet, but there is plenty of other information available, that will bring a history to life.  For example, I found the telephone directory entry of my grandfathers business, in 1926. I also found the emigration notice for my great-aunt, who went to live in America, in 1947.  It's a copy of the actual handwritten notice.

It quite fascinating, and now I'm trying to build on the tree, with some knowledge about how and where they lived. Coupled with some photos of the time, this will be something not just for me, but for the whole family, and generations to come, to be able to understand where we came from, and, more importantly, who we are.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Few Of My Favourite Books

After my post about reading, I said I would mention a few of my favourite books.  Reading matter is subjective.  There are books to cover every genre; from classic novels to biographies; educational to murder mystery.

Usually, once you have an interest in a particular subject, or type of story, you tend to stick with the same.

There will be some types of book that hold no interest at all; for me, I don't like horror, so stories by Stephen King (for example) are not in my house.  (Although I have watched some film adaptations - The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, for example).

Then there's the author.  Once again, when I find an author I enjoy, and the style I like, I tend to go back and read the entire back catalogue.  It's exciting when I discover someone new, or realise I've been missing out by not reading them.

A classic example of this, for me, recently, was when I read my first Ian Rankin.  I haven't been a Rebus fan, however, I remember being in Tesco, and another customer saw me holding the book "Exit Music".
He suggested that it was very good and, based on that encounter and recommendation, I bought it.  I have since bought more Ian Rankin novels.

Give me a good police procedural story, or thriller, or action/adventure, and I'll spend hours immersed in the story. 
Michael Connelly and Peter James are a couple of my regulars; indeed the new Michael Connelly, "Nine Dragons" is due out at the beginning of October.

I'm not a massive fan of auto-biographies.  I find them to be self pompous, as the author speaks of nothing but themselves.  On the other hand, biographies are very different.

These are written by others, sometimes without the knowledge or approval of their 'subject'.  However, they're more interesting, as they are written without personal interest involvement. 
They are more subjective.

My favourite is about Steven Spielberg.  Writing about someone who is at the pinnacle of their career, and is as powerful as he is, can be difficult to get 'both sides' of the same person.  However, Joseph McBride manages it, and the information and story about one of the most influential film directors, is captivating.

Other great reads are by Tess Gerritsen; who as a former MD, turned to crime writing whilst on maternity leave.  The beauty of her stories is that they are all medical based, which is a twist on the standard police investigations.

A recent favourite of mine are the Jack Reacher novels.  I've read them all.  Created by Lee Child, these are the stories of a former officer with the US Military Police.  With no passport and no belongings (except his toothbush) and just a cash card, he traverses the US, somehow managing to cause a great deal of trouble as he solves local problems.  They usually end up in carnage, but they're good fun, and true escapism.

All of Dan Browns' books have proved to be a good read; although "Deception Point" I found to be the weakest.  His latest, "The Lost Symbol", was released on Tuesday, and so far is living up to the hype.  It's become the fastest selling hardback in the UK, with more that 300,000 copies purchased in the first 36 hours.  A lot of people are obviously hoping this will be good.  So far so good.

Finally, for now, I return to Agatha Chrisite; where I began my adult reading life.  No-one has managed to eclipse her as the Queen of Crime; in my opinion.  Her simple stories have that 'je ne sais quoi' and very endearing characters; especially in Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot.

I said I'd list some favourites, which I now realise is difficult, because it's usually the author you follow, but I said I would , so, in no particular order:
That was a whistle-stop tour of my reading habits.  And I apologise for not being specific about favourites.  However, I decided it's much too difficult to single out one book.

I'm not sure what it tells you, but I hope you enjoyed it.

Postscript: Since writing this, I thought I'd also touch on audio-books.  Being stuck in the car, morning and evening, I have recently started listening to books.  It's a great way to while away a journey, and if the voice is right, the story really comes to life.
Some of the audio-books I've listened to include Michael Connellys' "The Lincoln Lawyer" and "The Scarecrow".  Most recently "The Book Thief" by Marcus Zusak - absolutely fantastic.  I'm currently listening to Harlen Cobens' "Long Lost"

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