Monday, December 29, 2008

Time To Get Back To Blogging

I've been diverted recently from blogging by the likes of Twitter, FriendFeed, a real life, etc. but I quite fancy getting back to jotting down some thoughts again. Mind you I also bought myself a Playstation 3 recently so that could be difficult. That said, I'll try and do a bit more regular posting from now on, knowing that it all gets syndicated out to Twitter and FriendFeed anyway.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ross Hall Park

On our way down to Crookston Castle on Sunday we passed by the entrance to Ross Hall Park, yet another place we'd never been before. It's one of over 90 public parks and gardens in Glasgow and isn't listed on the Glasgow City Council site so it's no wonder a lot of these places go unnoticed. So, on the way back from the castle, we followed the river and detoured through the park for a visit.

Ross Hall ParkRoss Hall Park

With it being adjacent to the Ross Hall Hospital, then I suspect that it's likely that the grounds once belonged to Ross Hall House, which is now part of the hospital. It isn't a big park by any means but it does have a hidden gem - a grotto and rock garden dating back to 1895. The whole thing is category B listed with it described as…Ross Hall Park
Garden structures constructed at intervals around 3 sides of open lawn built in partly natural and partly artificial Pulhamite stone, including grotto, rock garden and rock flanked narrow passage, low wall, subterranean boat house and ornamental paths, all designed to appear as natural outcrops.

Phew!, what all means is that there is a pretty surreal area of twisty and turny paths and bridges going over and around ponds and weird rock formations. The grotto is a rock-walled enclosure constructed around a sunken pool (now filled-in) with "rockery" masonry, bridges arched over water features, plant troughs in hollowed boulders and rock wall and shelter areas under overhanging rock.

Pulhamite, the artificial rock used in the grotto, is the legacy of James Pulham & Sons, landscape designers in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies who were responsible for working on garden designs in Sandringham and Buckingham palaces and the RHS Gardens Wisley among others.

Ross Hall Park PondRoss Hall Park Pond

The rest of the park is pretty unremarkable but it does have a decent lawned area running down from Ross Hall House to a pond in which there were a few ducks and moorhens splashing around. Just adjacent to that area is a more formal garden section overlooked by the ruin of what appears to be an old boiler house with a large and ornamental chimney stack (see top picture).

Maybe we'll go back next Summer to see it all in a better light so to speak.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crookston Castle

Another sunny Sunday but I had a bit of a headache, which I suspect was caused by a toxic Domino's pizza from the night before. So, unwilling to drive far with a sore head, we decided to stroll down to Crookston Castle. At least I'd get some fresh air or what passes for it in Glasgow.

Crookston CastleCrookston Castle

Crookston Castle is basically a 15th century ruin only a few miles from our doorstep but, for some reason, we've never ventured near it before now. It sits atop a small hill in the heart of a residential area and is flanked by some fairly busy roads and the Levern Water. The weather was pretty good for the time of year; sunny but a bit cold, which probably accounted for the fact that we met absolutely no-one in or around the castle.

Crookston CastleCrookston Castle

Crookston Castle was named after Sir Robert de Croc, who built the first castle here in the 12th century and you can still see the remains of the old bank and ditch defences from that time surrounding the site This present castle was built around 1400 by the Stewarts of Darnley. A popular story concering it is that Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, proposed to Mary, Queen of Scots, under a yew tree here. The castle suffered severe damage at the hands of James IV in 1489 when he used the the cannon Mons Meg from Edinburgh to suppress a rebellion by the Earl of Lennox.

Today, it's managed by Historic Scotland and is open to the public so you can wander though what's left of the halls and climb all the way to the top of the North-East tower for some excellent views out over Glasgow.

We were quite surprised that the place was wide open to explore; no sign of any wardens or anyone looking for cash for admittance. It's also really clean and well kept inside; none of the usual detritus of inner-city living such as coke cans, old bottles or even the odd jakey. The interior has been restored a bit so you can easily walk around what's left of the place and can even climb all the way to the top of the North-East tower, albeit by three flights of open-rung ladders from the first floor. Lorna isn't one for heights or at least not heights she can see directly below her feet so she didn't go for the ladders. I hauled my somewhat bulky frame all the up though and was rewarded by some excellent views out over the city.

Crookston ViewView From Crookston Castle Tower

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Glasgow's Fireworks Display 2008

Glasgow Fireworks 2008
We went along to the Glasgow annual Guy Fawkes Night fireworks display at Glasgow Green on Thursday night, which was the 6th of November and not the 5th as is traditional. It was delayed a day to avoid a clash with a Celtic vs Manchester United football game in the city, which probably meant that the police couldn't be in two places at once.

Glasgow Fireworks 2008Anyway, we finished work around six, had a quick burger meal and wandered along to Glasgow Green. I say wandered but we really just followed the growing throng of people doing the very same and all heading for the fireworks do. By the time we got to the entrance the crowds converging on the place were huge and it was pretty busy on-site already as the entertainments had begun about 6:30. There were some large screens set up and some Radio Clyde DJs were keeping the crow amused, if not entirely entertained, with some inane waffle. I mean just how enthusiastic can anyone with more grey matter than a spoonful of porridge get about winning X Factor tickets?

Nearing the 7:30 startup time for the fireworks we had the Lord Provost do his bit and then somebody they picked to press the big button did just that and the show began. This year, the event had a West End musical theme with all the sing-along favorites from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat throughout! Still with us and stopped vomiting? Okay it wasn't quite that bad! They'd done a decent job of choreographing the music and munitions together and with some 3,000 fireworks going off over about 30 minutes it was a pretty good show.

Glasgow Fireworks 2008
My only complaint was that the smoke from some of the fireworks got so thick at some points it obscured the ones following. Luckily for everyone the rain had held off, unlike last night or it'd have been a complete washout. Anyway the night was over after 30 minutes worth of music and explosions so everyone either trudged back into town or headed for the nearby sideshows or sausage-on-stick vans that had turned up to help them appreciate the joy of long queues and then relieve them of their cash. Still, there's always next year!

Glasgow Fireworks 2008

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A Walk In The Forest

With the weather looking reasonable and it being a Sunday, we hopped in the car and headed for the Trossachs for a wander in the forest, specifically around the David Marshall Lodge near Aberfoyle.

Queen Elizabeth Forest ParkA Shady Path

The lodge is actually a Forestry Commision visitor centre in the Achray Forest, which itself lies in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. The Achray Forest straddles the Duke's Pass between Loch Achray and the Trossachs to the North and Aberfoyle to the South while the larger Queen Elizabeth Forest Park runs from the East shore of Loch Lomond to Strathyre and of course all of that lies within the new Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. If all of that doesn't confuse the tourists, then we're not trying hard enough!

There are about eight well maintained and signed forest walks around the lodge area and, along with the latest attraction, the Go Ape High Wire Adventure course, it's a good place for youngsters to spend a day in the outdoors. The one downside we discovered was that the tearoom, which was always good for a tea and a scone after a solid day's walking the trails, has been changed. They've obviously sold out to a what appears to be a team of foreign migrant workers and they're trying to turn it into a table service only place. What a horror - we couldn't just nip in for a simple snack lunch but had to order from a menu and then wait about 20 minutes until we sere served. Whatever happened to the home baking and large urns of hot soup or rolls to go? I can't fault the food though and we had a couple of bowls of steaming hot soup before heading out but it'll never fly as a table-service only restaurant.

The TrossachsBen Lomond To Ben Ledi

The surrounding forest is a mix of oak, birch, larch and conifers so there's plenty of variety in the woodland and lots of birdlife around as well. We usually wander around almost all of the path trails and end up on top of the little hill that at one time sported a radio mast as the views out from it excellent. You can see all the way over to Ben Lomond in the East, North to Ben More and Stobinnean, Ben Ledi to the West(ish) and South to Dumgoyne and the Campsie Fells.

Dumgoyne and the Campsie FellsSouth to Dumgoyne and the Campsie Fells

All of that usually takes us about three hours or so of ambling along the trails and then it's time for a laze, sitting having a snack on the hilltop, and then wandering back down by a different route. Of course by the time we got back down to the lodge the new tearoom/restaurant had closed at four in the afternoon. Now that's enterprising of them, not!

So, no tea or scones to be had, we set off home somewhat disgruntled but not unhappy!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Hundred Million Suns

Got a hold of a copy of Snow Patrol album - A Hundred Million Suns today. I've already got some of their earlier work such as Eyes Open and Final Straw and quite liked both of those so I'm hopeful that this one will prove to be worth the same investment in time listening to it.

At first play through it seems a bit raunchier than earlier albums at the beginning but it's still Snow Patrol and there are some more familiar sounding tracks through the course of the album to appease those that don't like change. The final track, The Lightning Strike, lasts for over 16 minutes and is definitely a bit of a change. It might take a few listens to grow on me but I think it will and it may prove even more popular than their previous offerings.

If you like songs with lyrics you can actually hear and some very nicely arranged acoustic guitar music backed by some amazing orchestrated themes, then you may very well find A Hundred Million Suns is your cup of tea.

Genre: Alternative
My Rating: 7/10

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fuerteventura - Corralejo

We're not long back from a couple of weeks on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, hence the lack of posts here lately. Following right on from that I got hit with a pretty bad cold and throat infection so that more or less stopped the posting too. Anyway, I'm almost back to normal, well at least as normal as usual so I thought I'd better start scribbling again.

Corralejo BayCorralejo Bay

Corralejo is the main tourist resort on Fuerteventura. We chose the holiday at pretty much the last minute and, as we'd never been to Fuerteventura before, it was somewhere different to go. We'd heard that the island was pretty quiet compared to the better known islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote so needed somewhere with a bit of life to it, which is what made us choose Corralejo over some of the smaller resorts.

Corralejo lies at the North end of the island with good views over to the island of Lanzarote and just the South-East of the town is a huge area of about seven miles of sand dunes and beaches that have been designated as a nature park and is really popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers. It's essentially a resort built around the core of an old fishing village, which still has a pretty busy harbour what with the local boats, fishing trips for the tourists and two regular ferries to Lanzarote.

Kitesurfing at Flag BeachKitesurfing at Flag Beach

We booked a self-catering apartment in the Playa Park complex. It's sited a bit further away from the main centre than I'd have liked but it wasn't too far and it was quite handy for walking out to the beaches. Playa Park itself was pretty good as a place to stay. The staff were friendly and the place was kept very clean and tidy. The apartment wasn't bad either. It had a lounge, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom along with a balcony so it catered for everything we needed. The ony gripe was that they charged extra for the TV but, since it only had the basic channels like CNN, Europsort, etc. it wasn't worth it so we didn't bother. Better things to do of an evening anyway.

Aside from lying in the sun by the pool or wandering out to the beaches, the Corralejo night life is reasonably good. There are loads of restaurants to choose from and most are pretty good, although avoid the Indian in the Plaza Centre as it was pretty poor. There are lots of Chinese places too and, even though they're almost all called Slow Boat something, they were reasonably good. For Italian cuisine, the La Mamma round the back of the karaoke abomination called the Atlantico Centre was very good and for a change, try 5th Avenue.

Corralejo HarbourCorralejo Harbour

There are also lots of pubs, which was good, and we spent a fair number of nights in the Rock Island Bar listening to the live acoustic music sessions. The only down side was that they stopped playing live music at midnight. We also frequented the Aussie-themed Down Under Bar, which had a pretty good resident rock band and a few good guest artists on as well. The Down Under kept us up a lot longer, with the bands keeping going until 2:30 a.m.

Corralejo has a lot going for it as a decent tourist resort but it is still being developed pretty heavily so it may well eventually burst at the seams. On top of that, Fuerteventura is getting drier and drier every year and can no longer sustain the current population's water needs. Even with a desalination plant, it needs to import water so there has to come break point where it may well either prove too costly to keep afloat or it'll need to scale back a bit.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Some Apple II Nostalgia

I've just come across a site called Virtual Apple ][ and that got me feeling nostalgic about playing some of the classic videogames from that era and how I got into computing in general. Back when I was working as a lab technician in Glasgow University in the 1970s, the department had its own DEC PDP-8 and PDP-11 mini-computers and I, keen to get on in the world and seeing this new technology as a possible means of rising above my current level, I jumped in head first.

WizardryAlmost all of our programs back then were written in BASIC or FORTRAN back then with the real gurus producing machine code for the seriously low-level programming tasks so I taught myself both BASIC and FORTRAN as well as FOCAL-8 and got into the world of paper tape and keyboards. However, getting time on the machines was very difficult as everyone in the department and their dog wanted computer time since that was the "in thing" for research scientist types to do.

When we then bought another computer to analyse the data from our nice, new Japanese scanning electron microscope, I got lucky and got myself involved with that team. The microscope had an attachment that could give us a chemical breakdown of the target being scanned and I got roped into helping with the data analysis system a bit and my career in computing got a bit closer.

Ultima IIMy next break came when microcomputers like the Commodore PET and the Apple II came along in the late 1970s. They were cheap enough that almost every research project needing a bit of data analysis wanted its own, dedicated computer to do the job; no more queuing for or fighting over session time on the bigger department machines. It also meant that I got more keyboard time as well and I ended up developing some pretty complex programs for research projects and even learned that esoteric art of machine code programming along the way.

We had a few PETs, and I'll never forgot the hours I spent at those wee calculator keyboards, but our first Apple computer was an Apple II with a huge 16K of memory and I was hooked. An Apple II Europlus soon followed and, with their own floppy disk systems, our department really started to use them in earnest.

Lode RunnerThat's when I discovered the world of Apple II games. Sure, I'd played Space Invaders on the PET but this was a brand new world; the Apple had a hi-res colour display and it came with game paddles. It was a huge leap forward from the text-based games like Collosal Cave that our scientist types played on the PDP-11. Computer-based video games had definitely landed and were on a roll; they just hadn't hit the home market yet or at least not many folk could afford their own home computer back then.

Anyway, back to Virtual Apple ][, which is a site with a collection of more than 1250 Apple II and IIgs games and you can play them all through your web browser. Games like Lode Runner, Tetris, Ultima, Wizardry and Zaxxon take me right back to that time and I remember playing some of these for hours and hours. It's a pity and even a bit ironic that they can't be played using a Macintosh but a Mac OS X-compatible version of the emulator is expected "soon".

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Damp Walk Up The Lang Crags

It was a dull and cloudy Sunday afternoon but we decided to head out anyway and take a walk up in the Overtoun Estate above the town of Dumbarton. I lived in Dumbarton for about 12 years and never managed to visit the estate before now so it seemed like it needed ticked off the list once and for all. The estate was bequeathed to the people of Dumbarton by Douglas White, a London doctor, in 1939 and is now open to the public for general wandering around and rambling.

Overtoun HouseOvertoun House

We parked the car at the bottom of the estate's West Drive and walked up the hill towards the main part of the estate. We could have parked beside the house itslef but we were out for a bit of a walk so that seemed a wee bit like cheating. However, after plodding all the way up to the crags and back and it being so wet underfoot, I wish we'd done just that.

At the heart of the estate is Overtoun House, now a Christian centre and unfortunately not open to the public other than it has a wee tea-room open during the Summer but only on a Saturday. The house was built for wealthy Glasgow industrialist James White in 1860 as a family retreat from the grime and factories of Glasgow. It was an ideal location, having wonderful views out over the Firth of Clyde and the Kilpatrick Hills, and yet being within easy reach of his business in Glasgow. White was once one of Glasgow's most prominent citizens, well-known for his philanthropic works across the city and surrounding area so it must have rubbed off onto his descendant Douglas when he gave the place to the people.

Close to the house is the fifty foot high Overtoun Bridge, built in 1895 and which crosses the Overtoun Burn and leads on to the West Drive and down into Dumbarton. The bridge attained a level of mystery a few years ago when it was reported that a number of dogs had apparently commited suicide by leaping to their deaths from it. A bit of digging by some reporters unearthed the grim fact that about 50 dogs had killed themselves in this way here since the 1950s. Maybe the dogs are supersensitive to atmospheric conditions in the area, maybe the topography is just confusing for them or maybe the place is haunted; no-one knows why they do it! All that aside, it's a very pleasant, if somewhat neglected looking bridge.

Dumbuck hill to Dumbarton RockDumbuck hill to Dumbarton Rock

Towering above the estate are the Lang Crags, a line of rugged cliffs that overlook the lands and skirt the summit of Brown Hill. The cliffs are possibly named after the Lang family that once owned the estate back in the 18th century but it could just as easily mean "long" as they are quite ... long. The walk up the the crags is reasonably gentle, if a little long and boggy. The path follows the course of the Overtoun Burn and then turns uphill onto the hill from where you can wander out along the edge of the crags where the view out over Dumbarton and Firth of Clyde are amazing. You can also see all the way up to Loch Lomond and the hills beyond although it was pretty cloudy so we didn't get a great view of those.


A Slideshow of Images Taken At Overtoun

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sunday Afternoon In Mugdock Country Park

Mugdock Loch and CastleMugdock Loch and Castle

Lorna had checked the weather maps on Saturday night and predicted that there would be a hole in the cloud on Sunday afternoon over the Glasgow area so we might very well get out for a stroll before the rain we've been having returned. We didn't want to go too far as that hole didn't look like it was going to be that large or last that long so we opted to stay close to Glasgow and head out to Mugdock Country Park.

We haven't been to the park for a couple of years, I mentioned it here at the time, so it was a well due for a visit again. Amazingly it's still free to get in and, with the sun being so accommodating, it was pretty busy too and the ice-cream was going like hot cakes, although not literally or it'd have melted. Mugdock Country Park is an enormous place, with over 260 hectares of woodland, moorland and wetlands it's ideal for almost any length of walk you fancy. Add to that a couple of castles, several lochs, a visitor centre, a walled garden and quite a few other attractions, there's not much chance of getting bored for quite a long time.


We parked close to the visitor centre and had a wander around the walled garden for a bit as the sun was pretty warm, then strolled over to the 14th century Mugdock Castle. The recently refurbished South-West tower was open for visitors but it was dark in there and the sun was still out so we gave it a miss. Wish we'd gone in now as you can get out onto the tower roof. From there we walked to nearby Mugdock Loch and wandered all the way round that, which gives some good views of the castle tower above the trees, before heading along to the anti-aircraft gun placements and then back round to Craigend Castle.

We ended things up in the wee garden centre restaurant for tea before heading back home for the evening. The sun had gone by then and it was getting very cloudy so we'd had the best of the day. We should really come here more often as there's an awful lot of ground we didn't cover.

Related Posts: Mugdock Country Park

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Darckr Side Of Flickr

I've just discovered Darckr, a free web application for displaying and acting upon Flickr images. In essence, Darckr is a streaming Flickr viewer that will allow you to customize how you view your, and anyone else's, Flickr photostream. You can change the presentation options: size, number, number of columns, background, etc. and every option is available in a single-click. Darckr will even remember your preferences if you want it to.

Darckr
Initially written so the author could view his contacts photos on a black background, Darckr can also automatically enhance the display of your photos by adding drop shadows and borders if you want. Another useful feature Darckr offers you is the possibility to view only your public photos, or only your non-private photos. That way you can see what your photostream looks like to everyone else without having to logout from Flickr.

Darckr's other aim is at saving you time in your Flickr life. You can post comments on your contacts photos or fave them much more easily than in the standard Flickr interface. You can even use this interface to comment on and tag your own photographs.

Darckr comment view
Darckr uses the Flickr API to retrieve data so cannot let other people view unauthorized content. By default Darckr displays photos at a size that cannot exceed "Small" (240 pixels) and, unlike other viewers, Darckr allows you to "opt-in" to grant others access to larger sizes. Darckr presents and in no case copies your pictures. They remain on Flickr and other users see only what they are entitled to.

If you're a Flickr user and have granted access to Darckr, then you can view your own photos, or a gallery of your contacts photos, and if you're a friend or family view full contents of other people streams. You can also share permalinks to your Darckr stream for instance to publish your most interesting photos as a Darckr gallery.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Where'd My Images Go?

Well I finally did it! I managed to delete an entire photo-shoot from both my computer and the memory card they were on. It was one of those really easily done things; I'd just imported the photos off of the card and into iPhoto, deleting them off the card when it was done as I always do. Then, after working on the pics for an hour or two, I was careless and managed to drag the lot into the iPhoto trash and then, like a crazed loon, emptied it without thinking.

So there iIwas, thinking "Golly, that was most unfortunate!, I've been a very silly Billy!" and then I remembered that I'd posted an article about Recovering Lost or Corrupt Camera Images on my other blog a few years ago So, I immediately looked up my own blog and then started hunting out the software I'd mentioned back then. The card mounted fine on my Mac so I tried the Exif Untrasher utility but to no avail. It's pretty old and probably couldn't handle the Canon format on the card. It was time to move over to the PC, for which there are loads of free file recovery utiltities. However, the card wouldn't mount as a drive on the PC as it's not a recognized standard format and that stumped most the the file recovery utilities, like Recuva, that focus on recovering deleted files.

So that left me with another couple of options to try - PC Inspector Smart Recovery and Zero Assumption Digital Image Recovery, both free tools. Luckily for me, both of them recognized the card, scanned through it and discovered all of those deleted images. PC Inspector threw up a few errors during the process and locked up while trying to recover the images in batches. I eventually had to recover them one by one to get the job done without it freezing on me. The other tool, the Zero Assumption thingy, was far better at it and got all of the images off the card in one go. Okay, it took a while to scan the card but it found everything that was deleted and sooked them all off onto my hard drive really quickly.

So, what have I learned?
  • Blogs are good for keeping useful information.
  • Dedicated photo recovery utilities can do the business and file recovery tools can't.
  • There are no reliable, free, Mac-based photo recovery tools.
  • To be more careful before deleting my iPhoto trash.
  • Don't stay up all night editing photos; life's too short.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Photo Aging Made Easy!

Eilean Donan Castle
If you've ever fancied making some of your photographs look like they were taken in a bygone age, then check out the Bakumatsu Koshashin Generator from Wanokoto Labs in Japan. This free web service will allow you to upload an image from your hard drive or supply a URL to an online image and they'll apply their aging algorythm to it.

For example, I took the above image I had taken of Eilean Donan castle and ran it through the generator to produce the one below…

Aged Eilean Donan Castle
It certainly gives it an old and very neglected appearance! There are lots of possibilities for using this site - old landscapes like the one above, aged family portraits, faded vases of flowers, etc. You could even give your web site a somewhat crumbly and ancient look.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Wet Sunday Afternoon In Geilston Garden

It was a Sunday that looked like rain and we couldn't risk going too far so we ended up driving over to Cardross to spend a few hours in whatever decent weather we had left of the day in Geilston Garden, a place we've been to a few times now.

The Geilston BurnThe Geilston Burn

Geilston Garden lies just on the western edge of Cardross, on the road to Helensburgh, and is set in the 10 acres around the 15th century Geilston House. It was only opened to the public in 1998 by the National Trust for Scotland. Prior to that I assume it was privately owned as I used to fish in the little burn running though the grounds as a lad and had been chased off more than once; a great wee burn for brown trout and the occasional sea trout too.

The house isn't open to the public and the garden isn't that big but it's usually quite quiet and a nice place to sit in the sun when we get some. It's got a walled garden with an enormous Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum or giant redwood) in the centre, a smallish formal garden, a decent sized kitchen garden and lots of little wooded paths around the burn. There's usually plenty of flowers in bloom in the garden so there's always some colour about the place too.

Wet Chocolate CosmosWet Chocolate Cosmos

Today, however, we got rain from almost the moment we got there until we left. Not particularly heavy rain but enough to make us have to shelter under the huge leaf of a Gunnera plant down by the burn. What they need is a wee tea-room and scones, definitely scones...

There are more photos of Geilston Garden here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Finding The Best Online Digital Photo Printing Service

Given the financial insanity of buying a digital photo printer for occasional home use, I was hunting around for a price comparison site for photo printing services and found printRates.com. It's fairly simple to use - just enter the number of prints you want at what size and what shipping method and it returns a comparison table of results from a decent sized list of printers.

It's a primarily US-based site but does allow you to change the country to the UK and, while reviews of UK photo printing services are fairly thin on the site, hopefully that will improve as time goes by.

I saw a review of several of these sites in a magazine a while ago and, given the results of that on the quality of the printing, I've been using PhotoBox but I may well try a few of these others out now as well.

There are a few reviews of online photo processors out there worth checking out as well…

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Buying DVDs No Longer Makes Sense

Having recently signed up for a 30 day trial of DVD and games rental site LOVEFiLM, I have to admit that it's a very appealing service and one that will probably change the way we buy and watch DVD movies. They have over 65,000 titles available and you simply build yourself a list of the films you want to see or games you want to play and, based on what rental plan you're on, the discs get mailed to you by first-class post as soon as you have a rental slot available. You can even set the priority of the titles you want to get and you can then keep the disc as long as you want and then mail it back to them in a postage-paid envelope once you're done with it.

I chose the simplest option for the trial - unlimited rentals of one disc at a time, which I thought was enough to try it out and it works out at roughly two films a week assuming that we watch it the day it arrives and return it the next day. Frankly I doubt if we could watch more than that as we really don't want to turn into that kind of couch potato. There are lighter plans available that limit the number of rentals per month and heavier plans of unlimited rentals of up to three discs at a time. You can even add video games onto your rental plan if you want to.

Of course there'll always be discs that we'll want to buy and own for watching again and sometimes again or just for the loads of extras some of them come with but for the most part, once we've watched a disc, it gets stuffed away in a cupboard and will probably never be watched again. We've got over 300 DVDs at home now that adds up to quite a sum of money spent over the last few years. Sure, you can always sell them via eBay or Amazon, etc., and I have done quite a few times, but that's a lot of hassle for very little return and now that there's no Post Office near my work, it's simply not worth the bother.

The one disc at a time plan comes in at just under £10 a month, which equates to roughly £120 a year for about 90 discs and I'm factoring in a fair chunk of holidays there. Now think about how much it'd cost you to buy 90 DVDs and it works out at well over £120 doesn't it? Even if you wait until they're cheaper, say £7 each, then that's a massive £560! If we slowed the watching momentum to one movie a week, which I reckon we'll eventually get to once the novelty wears off a bit, it still works out that we're saving an awful lot of money renting instead of buying.

The only downside I can see to renting is the fact that rental copies often don't contain extra material or extended/director's editions and the discs themselves go through a lot of hands so can get a bit worn out. However, buying DVDs, for me, is now a thing of the past unless it's a very special disc that I simply couldn't rent or one that has enough interesting or entertaining extras on it to make it worth the purchase.

The standard trial period for LOVEFiLM is 14 days but if anyone wants a 30 day trial, then get in touch and I can send you a code for it. It gets me a month's free rental as well so even better!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Wanted

WantedWe went to see Wanted on Saturday, after a bit of shopping in town. It was too early to get dinner so we had a coffee and a bun and headed in for an earlier show. Strange to go so early but it certainly was a bit quieter than normal. Probably due to the fact that the film was an 18 certificate and most of the film-goers in the ticket queue were taking their kids to see Kung-Fu Panda or Prince Caspian.
Wanted tells the story of Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a downtrodden accountant with a dead-end life. His overbearing boss treats him like crap and he won't stand up to her; he knows his girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend but he won't do anything about it; his father ran out on him days after he was born; and he gets an anxiety attack at the slightest piece of excitement.

All this changes when he gets caught up in a gunfight at his local drugstore and is abducted by the beautiful Fox (Angelina Jolie) who tells him that his father had just been killed on the roof of an office block and that he was a member of The Fraternity, a secret society of assassins. Fox and her boss Sloan (Morgan Freeman) tell Wesley that a rogue agent is killing the members one by one and that he has the power within him to stop this killer and avenge his father's death. They also tell him that his anxiety attacks are a sign that he is one of them and that his body can operate at a much higher metabolic rate when required.

Wesley eventually accepts his destiny and joins The Fraternity, eschewing his past life, job and girlfriend, but things are not as straightforward as he thinks and perhaps Fate has played him a twisted hand!

Wanted
Wanted is based on the comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones and as such a certain amount of belief suspension has to be taken for granted. These assassins have what amounts to super powers and they do what they do at the orders of Fate itself. None of how all this is possible is explained so don't try to fathom it out as you never will.

As for the movie, it's a roller-coaster ride of high-speed action that delivers on pretty much everything it tries to be. MacAvoy is excellent as the anxiety-ridden, downtrodden and frustrated office worker character and just as believable as the super-charged assassin he gets turned into. Morgan Freeman is, as ever, the consumate manipulator and Angelina Jolie adds the much needed female touch to this testosterone enriched plot. Not that Fox is anyone's fluffy bunny and she's just as lethal as any of them.

Wanted has been compared to The Matrix and there are parallels between Wesley and Neo and those characters' path from ordinary Joe to super-hero as well as the link between Trinity and Fox. The special effects are very well done and there are some excellent shots of bullets curving through space and colliding in mid air, a traing crashing over a bridge and of course, the exploding rats.

Wanted is a brainless action romp that's very watchable. It has enough pace to keep you wanting to see where it's going and a bit of a twist in the tale as well. Worth catching if you like action movies.

Genre: Action, Thriller
My Rating: 7/10

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ardnamurchan - Kilchoan and Mingary Castle

Kilchoan, the most Westerly village on mainland Great Britain, is the largest settlement on the Ardnamurchan peninsula and pretty much the closest thing to the city lights that you'll find for miles; I mean, it has a shop, a garage, a hotel and even a tourist information office. It also has a car-ferry terminal from where you can catch the boat over to Tobermory on Mull and, with seven crossings a day during the Summer months, it's obviously a popular route. The shop, a life-line to anyone staying in the area, is pretty well stocked and not over-priced and has a very decent range of beers and wines to pass away the solitude of cottage life.

Mingary CastleMingary Castle

We drove on down to the tourist information office, which lies on the road down to the ferry terminal, and had a bit of lunch in the small café in there. It wasn't bad either - home-made soup, rolls, buns, etc.; what else do you need for a quick snack to keep you going in the middle of the day? From there it's a short drive down to the pier where there are some good views out over the Sound of Mull and back over to the ruins of Mingary Castle, which lies about a mile round the bay from Kilchoan.

Built in the 13th century for the MacIains of Ardnamurchan, the castle sits atop a rocky outcrop in Kilchoan Bay overlooking the entrance to Loch Sunart and the Sound of Mull. Like most Scottish castles of that era, it's had a pretty eventful history from being used by James IV in the late 15th century to help him suppress the MacDonalds, the Lords of the Isles and in the early 16th century it was besieged and taken by the MacDonalds of Lochalsh.

Mingary CastleMingary Castle

In 1588 the Macleans of Duart on Mull captured the castle with some involvement from a ship of the Spanish Armada en-route back home after their failed invasion of England. In the 17th century the castle was captured during the Wars of the Covenant and during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion it served as a government garrison. Today, it's in pretty poor repair and access to the interior of the castle is restricted for fear of causing someone an injury.

Getting to the castle involves either a trek round the shore from the pier or you can drive out just East of the village where you'll find a small track leading down a place where you can park and then walk down to the castle. Needless to say, we chose the easy route as the weather wasn't that great and we fancied wandering further along towards Ben Hiant, which is the highest peak in the area.

Ben HiantBen Hiant

After a bit of clamber down to the beach from the castle and pottering about a bit on the rocks, we did indeed wander further along the track towards Ben Hiant and the weather had brightened up a bit so we got some good views of the hill and across to the Island of Mull. It's a pity it wasn't as nice earlier or we'd have probably gone to the top of the hill as the views out over the Sound of Mull are supposed to be excellent.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ardnamurchan - The Lighthouse And Bay MacNeill

Ardnamurchan LighthouseArdnamurchan Lighthouse

If you're in or around Ardnamurchan, then a visit out to the 36 metre high, pink granite lighthouse on Ardnamurchan Point is a must-do. The lighthouse was built in 1849 by engineer Alan Stevenson, the uncle of writer Robert Louis Stevenson, and it's the only lighthouse in the UK built in the Egyptian style. It's also commonly described as the most Westerly point on the British mainland but it's not quite. A wee hillock about a kilometre to the South called Corrachadh Mòr is the real most westerly point.

You can reach the lighthouse by means of the single-track road just beyond Achosnich and at one stage it's controlled by traffic lights due to a blind corner going round a cliff edge just before you reach the car park. For the more adventurous, there's a path leading over from Portuairk, past the sandy beach at Bay MacNeill and which joins the road near the lighthouse.

The Small IslesThe Small Isles

It's all automated now but it houses an exhibition called the Kingdom of Light and, for a fee, you can climb the spiral stairs to the top of the tower to get a view of the surrounding sea and landscape. Close-by, there's also a small tea room and shop which does a decent range of scones and cakes. The electricity supply was fluctuating badly on one of our visits and I think we were lucky to get a hot cup of tea at all; the place was on battery power and the traffic lights were out of action, which led to a few head-head confrontations on the narrow road.

There are good views out over the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rùm and we drove round there a few times. We even ended up down on the very small beach and scrabbling around looking for cowries; found a few too!

Bay MacNeillDozing On The Beach At Bay MacNeill

On a better day, we took the path from Portuairk up over the hill and got some really good views out over Ardnamurchan Point and out to the islands. We dropped down from there into the valley beside Sgurr nam Meann and followed the stream down to Bay MacNeill, a largish beach of white sand and rock. However, the weather was so nice, we ended up just staying on the beach with me running around with the camera and Lorna having a doze in the sun.

Ardnamurchan PointArdnamurchan Point

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ardnamurchan - Portuairk

We spent a week on the Ardnamurchan peninsula this Summer, staying in the wee hamlet of Portuairk. Ardnamurchan, the most Westerly tip of the British mailnland, is also one of the last unspoilt places on the British mainland; a place of white sandy beaches, rolling hills and even a volcano or two.

Sunset From PortuairkArdnamurchan Sunset

Getting There

Getting to Ardnamurchan is fairly easy, if a bit onerous as far as the driving goes. We drove up the A82 to Nether Lochaber, which lies about nine miles south of Fort William, and took the Corran Ferry across Loch Linnhe to Ardgour. This avoids the much longer route that you can take by heading up to Fort William and heading along the A830 and cutting off onto the A861 at Kinlocheil or continuing on to Lochailort and then taking the A861 down to Salen; either way, it's a long drive.

From the ferry, there's 13 miles of decent road until you get to Strontian and then a horrible 35 miles of single-track road to Achosnich passing through Kilchoan, the largest village in the area. I don't mind driving on single-track roads, in fact I quite like it as it means you have to concentrate on driving, but 35 miles of this really windy and rolly road at an average speed of about 25 m.p.h. is very, very wearing. From Achosnich, it's only a few more miles to Portuairk and we were very glad to see it.

PortuairkPortuairk

Portuairk (Port of the Wild Boar)

Portuairk, which claims the honour of being the most Westerly settlement on the Scottish mainland, consists of only a handful or two of small cottages at one end of Sanna Bay. There's not a lot else to say about it other than it's a very pleasant little place with a natural harbour, protected from the worst of the weather and where the locals keep a few boats tied up, and it's surrounded by hills. Oh, and it's ruled by the flock of sheep that roam all over the grassy areas surrounding that end of the bay.

The nearest shop is in Kilchoan but it's fairly well stocked and the prices aren't that bad at all. for eating out, there's the Sonachan Hotel just past Achosnich and the Kilchoan House Hotel in Kilchoan. There's also a week tea-room in the Kilchoan Tourist Office and another out at Ardnamurchan Point but that's about unless you want to venture a fair way back along that single-track road.

Accommodation

We rented a cottage right down on the beach front, called simply The Bungalow, from a company based in Kilchoan and which I found online. They have a fair number of properties for rent on Ardnamurchan and, sad though it is, there seem to be more holiday homes there than those occupied by locals. The cottage was plainly furnished but reasonably well kitted out and it even had Sky TV, although that may have been because the chances of getting terrestrial TV out there was probably remote.


Portuairk BeachPortuairk Beach

As with most of these holiday cottages, it was really too big for just the two of us and could take six easily but that's the price of a quiet week in the countryside. With a decent sea view, the sunset shot above was taken from the front door, the beach only a few yards away, hills close by and absolutely no hustle or bustle, it suited us just fine and proved an ideal base from which to explore Ardnamurchan.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Crete - Heraklion

It was time for a break from beaches and archaeological sites on Crete so we hopped on the bus and headed into Heraklion for the day. Heraklion is the largest city and the capital of the island. It's had a fairly mixed history; Probably a port for the city of Knossos during Minoan times, the city proper was founded by the Saracens back in 824 A.D., then passed into the hands of the Byzantine Empire who then sold it on to the Venetians, who called it Candia. After them, it passed into the Ottoman Empire and they eventually made it a republic until it was given over to Greece in 1913. So it's had Minoans, Arabs, Romans, Venetians, Turks and Greeks in control of it over the centuries.

Castello del Molo (Koules)Castello del Molo, also called Koules

We'd been to the city on a previous visit and had spent most of that day in the archaeological museum. It wasn't the plan at the time but the museum is huge and it takes a long time to wander through all of it. Most of the good stuff from all of the ancient sites around the island has ended up here so it's worth a visit if you're interested in that kind of thing. Anyway, we'd already done that so this day was for a more general wander around.

The bus station is quite close to the harbour so that's where we headed first with the intention of visiting the Castello del Molo, which dominates the entrance to the Venetian harbour tand is also known as the Rocca a Mare and the Koules Fortress. This version was built around 1523-1540 to protect the enclosed harbour and predates the second Venetian fortifications around the city. We had a good old wander around the fortress, both inside and out, and it offers some excellent views out over the city, against the backdrop of the Idi mountains. Closer to the harbour, you can see the enormous Venetian shipyards or arsenals, which were used to house and build ships.

Morosini FountainMorosini Fountain

After lunch in a seriously busy restaurant just up from the harbour, we wandered up the 25th of August Street, heading for Eleftherias Square. On the way, we stopped in the little El Greco Park and passed the impressive Byzantine cathedral of St. Titus as well as a host of architecturally beautiful buildings. We also stopped at Lionaria Square, which is home to the beautiful Morosini Fountain but it was being renovated and was both incomplete and difficult to see. We eventually ended up at Eleftherias Square, a huge open square but not particularly interesting.

Agios TitosAgios Titos

From there we headed over to the St. George's Gate on the Venetian city walls, which was used as the main route between the city and the port. It's now used mainly as an art exhibition venue. We also had a brief detour around the nearby little Georgiadis Park before heading back to the bus station and out to Hersonissos.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Starship Troopers 3: Marauder

The war against the Bugs continues and, after the abyssmal effort that was Starship Troopers 2, we're being treated to a third installment - Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. However, with this one it looks like they've gone back to the same cheesey formula that made Starship Troopers such a hit.

The plot is fairly simple - when a Federation starship containing Earth's beloved Sky Marshal Anoke (Stephen Hogan) crash-lands on a distant planet called simply OM-1, it's up to Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), the reluctant hero of the original Bug Invasion on Planet P, to lead a squad of Troopers on a daring rescue mission. The team have to battle both old and new bugs and the new “Marauder” advanced weapons technology may be their only hope against a treasonous element operating within the Federation itself. As Captain Lola Beck (Jolene Blalock) and the rest of the crew fight to survive in the harsh conditions, it begins to dawn on them that something on OM-1 is very, very wrong. This time the bugs have a secret weapon that could destroy humanity.

It must be reasonably good as Paul Verhoeven puts his name to it presenter. It's written and directed by Ed Neumeier and special effects are by Academy Award winning Robert Skotak (Terminator 2, Aliens, X2). Nice to see Casper Van Dien back as a much older and highly promoted Johnny Rico and along with a few other recognizable names including Jolene Blalock as the tough but gorgeous Captain Lola Beck, Amanda Donohoe as Admiral Enolo Phid and Catherine Oxenberg as a technician, we might actually get a half decent movie this time. It's due for a straight-to-video (DVD and Blue-ray) UK release at the end of September. See the trailer for it here...

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2397110553/

Friday, June 13, 2008

Crete - Malia

With our three-day stint with the hire car over, we thought we'd take the local bus service along to Malia for the day. The buses run every 30 minutes during the day but there's no way of knowing when they'll turn up as all the times posted seem to indicate the time they leave Heraklion. There's a nice wee disclaimer at the bottom of the timetable stating that "any delays in service are due to traffic!". So twenty minutes later than when we thought a bus would come, one did…

Malia PalaceMalia Palace

Malia is a strange sort of resort town. Above the main road is the old town of Malia, where the locals live, and it's full of little windy streets and white houses; just what you'd expect from a little Greek village. However, below the main road is a different world; a hell on earth if you're our kind of tourist. The main strip down to the beach is a yob's paradise of English and Irish bars, all claiming to sell the cheapest and largest amounts of alcohol they can. Fancy a goldfish bowl full of synthetic alcohol? Yes, well you can buy as many as you can drink here in Malia.

We've stayed in Malia on two previous visits to the island but always in the off season, when it's quieter and the invasion of bar-crawling rabble is either over or hasn't begun. It's actually not a bad place to visit during those quieter periods. Anyway, the bus dropped us off in the centre of town and we headed East, walking about three kilometres out to visit the archaeological site of the Minoan Palace of Malia where, according to legend, Sarpedon, the third son of Zeus and Europa and brother of King Minos, ruled here. The first Palace was built around 1900 B.C. but destroyed in 1700 B.C. and a new Palace built but like all of the other Minoan palaces on Crete, that was destroyed in 1450 B.C. We'd been here before but it seemed a reasonable target for a short walk in the sun.

Tropical BeachTropical Beach

After an hour or so wandering around the ruins, taking the odd snap and chasing butterflies, we started wandering back towards Malia with the intention of getting a bit of lunch and then lazing about a bit on the beach. We found quite a nice little taverna along the coastal road and had a decent lunch before wandering over to the nearby beach for a bit of a lie about and maybe even a nap. It was a bit quieter there due to being a wee bit out of the town so we pretty much spent the rest of the afternoon there on the sand.

After a while we started back towards town, taking a detour to go via Malia Port. the little harbour along the way. We thought we'd maybe see a few old Greek fishing boats there but it's all gone modern now. Well, except for a few derelict looking bits of harbour machinery. Wandering back towards twon we spotted an old, ruined windmill and what looked like a very run down and abandoned water park.

Back in town we had a bit of a wander around to remind ourselves of the place and ended up down at sea again, looking out at the little island offshore with its obligatory wee white church. After that we found the bus stop, waiting over a hour for one to show up, and headed back to Hersonissos. You can see all of the pictures taken on this visit to Malia here.

An Island In The SunAn Island In The Sun

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullWe went to see the long-awaited fourth movie in the Indiana Jones series - Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
The story is set in the Cold War era of 1957 with the Russians seeking to learn the arcane secrets of the universe. When their agents track a young man (Shia LaBeouf) carrying a coded message from a Professor Oxley (John Hurt) to Professor Henry "Indiana" Jones (Harrison Ford), they know they're onto something big.

Led by the thoroughly nasty Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), the Russkies follow Jones and the young man, Mutt, to Peru. With Oxley's message decoded, Indiana and Mutt follow the trail to discover a legendary skull made of a single piece of crystal quartz and a possible clue to the whereabouts of Akator, also known as El Dorado, the City of Gold.

Of course, Spalko and her thugs aren't far behind and our heroes are captured and discover that they also have Oxley and Mutt's mother (Karen Allen), who turns out to be an old flame of Indiana's. The Russians believe the skull to be an alien artifact of great psychic significance and a source of immense knowledge. And so the fun begins with Indie and good guys escaping with the skull and trying to find out the secret of Akator while preventing the Russians from getting hold of it again.

Sure it was nice to see Harrison Ford back in the role of Indiana Jones and goodness knows we've waited long enough for this movie to get made. However, even with Steven Spielberg directing and a reasonably decent cast, this movie just doesn't live up to the reputation of the previous ones.

Can't really fault the cast. Ford is on form as Henry Jones, Blanchett is the archetypal bad guy (or gal), Hurt does his best bewildered professor bit as usual and even LeBeouf doesn't overdo it. Even Ray Winstone, playing a duplicitous character of no real import, manages to downplay his normal cockney barrow-boy image and do a decent bit of role -playing. To be honest we'd expect a bit of over-acting in an Indie movie but it's the unlikely stunts and action scenes that make it look bad - a sword fight taking place on two moving vehicles over rough terrain, using a snake as a rope, surviving a nuclear blast inside a fridge, a boat going over three waterfalls without anyone getting a scratch, etc.


I can't say it was bad as it thunders along at a decent if unlikely pace but it is by far the weakest Indie movie in the series. Even the plot involving crystal skulls, Russians, Incan treasure and aliens wasn't so bad either but it was so underwhelming after the big build-up it got and a 19-year wait. Wouldn't recommend it as a DVD purchase but it's worth a rental just to see Indiana Jones ride again, possibly for the last time. I don't imagine Harrison Ford will don the fedora and bull-whip again but young Mr. LeBeouf may well be being groomed as his successor. We can but wait and see but hopefully it won't take so long or suck so much next time.

Genre:Action, Adventure, Fantasy
My Rating: 6/10