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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Things to Do in Leicestershire: Visit a T Rex!

In your mind, superimpose that spine-tingling T-Rex roar from Jurassic Park
Another joint photo-and-I've-done-something-interesting post! I'm including some of the photos below, but (as always) you can see more here.

I have lots of interests, but a good way to figure out what some of them are would be to grab a small boy and ask him what he finds interesting: space is a surefire hit, but so are dinosaurs, and that's the subject of today's Interesting Thing.

My friend Victoria is a seismologist*. She works in the Geology department at the University of Leicester, which has its very own pet Tyrannosaurus Rex**. They are actively encouraging schools to send groups of students to visit Jane (and to see some other things in the department- they have an extensive collection of rocks and fossils on show, including some meteorites!), but Victoria kindly arranged for myself and my other half, Emma, to come in and meet Jane without a gaggle of kids in tow. She was doubly-kind and arranged for us to meet Dr Jan Zalasiewicz***, senior lecturer in Palaeobiology, who knows all about Jane (as well as everything else dinosaur-related) who talked to us about her (and palaeobiology in general) and answered all of our questions.

Jane is a young adult T. Rex, standing 2.3m tall, and 6.4m long. Double these figures, and you'll get an idea what mummy and daddy were like.
To any teachers who are reading, I found Dr Jan to be knowledgeable without being overbearing: he obviously knows his stuff and is experienced and comfortable with passing it on to others, and not necessarily at the university level. He showed us one of the activities he does with younger kids (involving a very large rolled up sheet of paper with an ancient dino-wing drawn on it), which I can imagine working well with anybody, young or old, with a dino-geekery streak in them. To get in on the action, check out Jane's website and email schools liaison officer Dr Gawen Jenkin at geology@le.ac.uk to find out more.

There are other fossils on display, arguably the most impressive of which are these well-preserved dinosaur eggs.
After we'd finished with the fossils, Victoria took us down to the room where the meat of her work - seismology - gets done. She works for the university and maintains the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)'s seismic equipment pool (mostly seismometers, funnily enough), and part of her job involves testing the equipment when it is returned to the department.

These seismometers were being tested. Victoria showed us the readings they were given on a laptop they were connected to, and how they were effected just by jumping up and down near them. Earthquakes on the other side of the world have been detected by seismometers on test in this room!
We also headed down to Leicester's New Walk Museum and Art Gallery for a look, largely because they have a dinosaur exhibition on at the moment. This was pretty cool, but the museum doesn't allow photography, so that's a post for another day!

Part of the internal workings of a water-damaged seismometer.






* Yes, that has very little to do with dinosaurs, but keep with it.
** Unfortunately she's**** been dead for around 66 million years, but looking good for it, despite the lack of skin, flesh, internal organs, etc.
*** I recognised him, but my memory wasn't being very helpful until later in the day when I remembered seeing one of his lectures at the Space Science themed 2010 University of Leicester Homecoming. I blogged about that (and the other lectures) here.
**** Actually, they don't know whether Jane was male or female: sexing dinosaurs is tricky.
Ja(y)ne can be a boy's name too...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Photography: A Sunday Walk

I've been on a Sunday evening walk and I took my camera with me, so here's a motley assortment of dusky photographs. As always, comments, suggestions, (constructive) criticisms are all most welcome. There are a couple more images here.

Sunset. Or, rather, sky-effects round about sunset timeish.

Part of me wants to find out just where this path's limits lie - we all have them, after all.

Most of the arguments against these things are complete rubbish.

I'm still getting to grips with Moon shots. An altogether zoomier lens is definitely something I want to get my hands on: this is a heavily cropped shop. It was quite misty up there tonight, and I'm not totally dissatisfied with this shot, I'm just not sure how to get more contrasty Moon images.

It always surprises me how fast a shutter speed is needed to get a detailed image of the Moon, but I'm not sure why it surprises me. Also, taking my tripod out may well help- this was stabilised on the rail of a roadbridge.


These two cars both hit 88mph at about the same time. What are the chances?

This is probably my favourite image of the night.
I just missed a police car with its flashing blue lights, which would have looked fantastic...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Must See TV: Wakey Wakey, Drakey

I don't watch a lot of telly, but now and then something catches my attention and I make a good effort to see what it's all about. Slightly less often, I get hooked so much that I have to see it through to the end, and rarer still is the situation in which I find myself wanting the DVD box set on my shelf.

Series 3 of Ashes to Ashes is the best eight hours of television I've seen in a long time. It has drama, conflict, action, emotion and light relief all playing about a backbone of perfect comic timing and slick dialogue accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack. There's a catch, though.

Here it is: If you're going to get out of these eight hours the entertainment and enjoyment I have, you've got to see series 1 and 2 first. But more than that, you really need to kick it off with Life on Mars. That's no chore, though- all four of those series are brilliant, and I'm choosing the final series because it really is the high that more television drama should aspire to end on. Here is, without spoilers, what you're missing:


Life on Mars, series 1

It's 2006 and Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler is investigating the kidnapping of his colleague and girlfriend and, in the process, is hit by a car and knocked unconscious.

He wakes up to find he's swapped his sharp suit for a leather jacket, loud shirt and cuban heels. Storming into CID, he finds that, somehow, it's 1973, he's now a Detective Inspector working under loud-mouthed, sharp-tongued, uncouth, consistently drunk and violent DCI Gene Hunt, and alongside Hunt's team, primarily consisting of DC Chris Skelton, DS Ray Carling and WPC Annie Cartwright. Sam's methods are as alien to the team as theirs are to him, and he works hard to gain their trust whilst hearing snippets from the future on TV and radio sets.

The series deals with the relationship between Sam and Gene, with each learning from the other's wildly different style of policing. They develop a grudging respect for one another as Sam tries to answer the question "am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?" Accompanied by a cracking soundtrack of contemporary popular music, he fights to find a way back to his own time and uncovers a dark secret from his own past.


Life on Mars, series 2

Sam's still in '73, still wearing the cuban heels. and still strutting along to a fab soundtrack trying to find his way home. Gene's still quick-talking, speedy with a punch to the gut and driving too fast. Solving crimes, beating up nonces and fighting with each other as much as the criminals they're trying to catch, Sam and Gene, along with Chris, Ray and Annie, head towards an emotional climax that threatens to tear Hunt's team apart. This is the price for getting Sam home.

Still hearing voices through TV sets and radios, Sam find things out that turn his world upside down and leave him questioning if his memories are real. The ending to this series was excellent- totally unexpected, with some of our questions being answered, some being left hanging, and a truckload more being dumped in front of us.


Ashes to Ashes, series 1

It's now 2008, and Alex Drake, who has been studying Sam Tyler's report of his experiences in 1973*, is called to an incident. She's shot in the head and wakes up in 1981, quickly finding herself in the company of Ray Carling, Chris Skelton and Gene Hunt, who have been transferred from Manchester to London. Having similar experiences to Sam, Alex hears messages from the future and her fight to get home is even more desperate than Sam's as she needs to make it home for the sake of her daughter, Molly. WPC Shaz Granger is introduced as part of the team, a young woman doing her best in the overtly sexist 80s environment.

In parallel to Sam's story (there are many), Alex's journey intertwines with her own past, answering questions that she had forgotten needed answering.


Ashes to Ashes, series 2

1982 (that's the year I was born!) and the gloriously retro 80s soundtrack continues unabashed, as does Alex and Gene's love-hate relationship. Is Gene there to help Alex, or to hinder her? Should she work with him or against him? This series explores issues of police corruption as well as digging deeper into the murky depths regarding the nature of the place that Alex finds herself in, and that Sam Tyler inhabited a couple of years before.

We see the characters of Chris, Ray and Shaz developing further, with another series ender that needs to be seen to be believed: Alex goes home! Or does she?


Ashes to Ashes, series 3

It's now 1983, and here's the meat and two veg of the entire franchise. Five series of Gene Hunt come to a head with slimy bastard Jim Keats mixing things up for the team. Allegiances are brought into question, friendships are tested to their limits. Things really hot-up towards the end of the series as all of our questions are answered, and Chris, Ray and Shaz learn as much about themselves as we do. The finale is an explosion of emotions as we, along with Alex, find out, once and for all, what's really been going on for the last five series.


Forty hours of television, all watchable stories in their own right, but working together to make one of the most original and compelling tales that I've ever found myself drawn into. It's one of those series that has you hooked from the start, enjoying the episodes and trying to second-guess the writers' intentions with regards to the overarching themes - but failing. Once it's over you'll feel a sense of loss but also of completion - they did a brave thing, finishing before it got stale. The revelations will be running through your mind for days, and you'll eventually go back and re-watch it, and spot all the clues you missed the first time around.

And then, if you've got any manners, you'll come back here and thank me.





* This really isn't as much of a spoiler as it sounds. You'll have to watch Life on Mars to find out why.

Anne of Greengages

This is a bit of an experiment wherein I just waffle a bit and see where my thoughts take me. Let me know what you think, either way.

Emma just came home with some greengages. They are a fruit that I haven't encountered much. They are rather like a small, green plum. Apparently the first 'true' greengage was bred in France.

Anne of Green Gables is a novel written in the early twentieth century by Lucy Maud Montgomery, in which young orphan Anne Shirley gets sent to live with a middle-aged brother and sister at Green Gables, a farmhouse on Prince Edward Island. They wanted a boy. When I was at university, living in university accommodation (academic year 2001 - 2002), my friend Rachel* made us watch a television adaptation of this book. There have been many adaptations, but I believe this one to have been the 1985 version. I remember us laughing quite a lot at unintentional innuendo, and at the fact that Rachel had an unnerving tendency to accidentally lean on the TV remote and unwittingly change it to Channel 5, which was essentially a porn channel at the time.

Anne of Cleves was the fourth ("divorced") wife of Henry VIII. They were married on January 6th 1540, and the marriage was annulled on July 9th of that same year, on grounds of both 'non-consummation' of the marriage, and her having already been betrothed to the 10-year-old Francis of Lorraine in 1527 (though this betrothal had been cancelled in 1535). Anne died, probably of cancer, 430 years to the day before my brother was born.






* My laptop's spell-checker wants me to replace 'Rachel' with 'Tracheal'.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Photography: First Space Attempt

Don't forget you can read about (and ask questions on) spacey topics over at Blogstronomy!

Some
Being, as I am, interested in both photography and astronomy it's a wonder that it's taken me so long to get around to mixing the two up. I've been stopped so far by a feeling that it would be hard. And I was right. I started off fiddling with different settings- I kept the aperture wide open and the D60's stock lens zoomed out, and experimented with different ISOs and shutter speeds. I found that I'd have to use longer shutter times than are catered for automatically if I wanted to use the lower ISOs.


different
I might experiment with star trail pics at some point, but I was trying just to get a half decent shot of the sky at this point. I found I needed a higher ISO to keep shutter times down to a point at which I wouldn't have to worry about star trails.


Another problem I had was focusing: the camera wouldn't autofocus on the sky (which didn't surprise me), but manually focusing was difficult because I couldn't see well enough through the eyepiece.

settings.
After a while I had the bright idea of auto-focusing on something closer and seeing what happened there. So I did.



And then it hit me: I could auto-focus on the house and then point at the sky without refocusing:


Which isn't a bad nonspecific starfield, I think, for a first night's shooting.

Any tips would be most welcome.

Here are my thoughts for the future:

  • Give my remote shutter release a whirl.
  • Try to get shots of some recognisable constellations.
  • Photograph the ISS.
  • Try a low ISO, extra-long exposure wide-angle shot to get some star trails.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

SPAG Woes - brought / bought

This is a teeny, tiny SPAG Woe, but one that causes a little piece of me to die violently every time I hear it*. It's a simple matter of one flipping letter. What does one letter matter?, I hear a few of you mumble uncertainly. Precisely: what does one letter matter? So why settle for getting such a simple thing wrong?

As always, it's down to simple rules that, to get right, all you need to do is learn them and practise them (much like tying your shoelaces, riding a bike, or feeding yourself without getting custard in your eye). Here they are:


Bought

If you say "I bought a loaf of bread," you're telling someone that you purchased it. Money changed hands, and the loaf of bread now belongs to you to do with as you will, whether that's make toast, have a sandwich, feed the ducks or give it to someone as a gift.


Brought

That simple little 'r', inserted between the 'b' and the 'o' changes the meaning of the word completely, yet people so often say 'brought' when actually the word they were looking for was 'bought'. I don't so regularly see the mistake made the other way around, though, which is odd: most travesties of spelling, grammar and punctuation stem from people trying to give their poor little fingers a rest from typing so many nasty, effort-inducing characters.

But anyway:

If you say "I brought a loaf of bread," you're telling someone that you moved a loaf of bread from somewhere to somewhere else. The idea that you purchased it from a supermarket, a bakery or a bloke called Kevin in an alley doesn't get a mention.


The Difference

The difference is subtle, and the two meanings can overlap quite a lot. For example, it's quite likely that if you bought a loaf of bread you also brought it home. To get it right, you need to think about what you mean:

  • "I have brought you a present!"  - I have been kind enough to find something that I thought you'd like as a gift, and bring it to you.
  • "I have bought you a present!" - I parted with some hard-earned cash in order to buy you something that I thought you'd like.

The Bottom Line
  • Use bought when you're talking about how you paid for something.
  • Use brought when you're talking about how you moved something.






* Actually, the truth of the matter is that every time I hear or see someone get this wrong, the Augmented Reality part of my brain supplies a brief but noticeable overlay of fiery burningness across my entire field of vision. Yes, it's disturbing, and yes, I should get it looked at.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

SPAG Woes - there / their / they're

Time for more SPAG Woes! This time it's the dreaded "which there / their / they're do I use?" Just like most grammar issues, it's a matter of learning a handful of really simple rules, which I'll outline (with examples) below. Then all you need to do is get a grammar-Nazi friend to correct you every time you cock it up, and a combination of repetition, annoyance, frustration and bitterness (these last three directed at your friend) will help it to stick.


When do I use "there"?

When directions or places are involved:

  • "It's over there!"
  • "Get out of there!"
  • "There isn't any more soap!" (This one isn't quite so obvious with the 'place' thing)
  • "How do we get there?"
  • "What are you doing there?"
  • "There's that escaped chinchilla that was on the news."

When do I use "their"?

When possession or ownership is involved:
  • "That's their overripe watermelon."
  • "Is this their address?"
  • "This one is theirs, not ours."

When do I use "they're"?

I'm saving the easiest one for last: use "they're" only when "they are" would fit too*:
  • "They're coming!" ("They are coming!")
  • "You'll have to ask them when they're here." ("You'll have to ask them when they are here")
  • "They're big, sweaty, ignorant and have hairy hands." (They are big, sweaty, ignorant and have hairy hands.)




* There's that apostrophe [this thing --> ' ] again, standing in for missing letters.

Photo Post: What Woke Me Up

There was this noise. It brought me from sleep into that state between asleep and awake in which your brain does odd things in order to explain unusual sensory input. For a while my iPad was intermittently on fire. As reality seeped in, things gradually got saner: a scooter being revved on top of a local garage; a man mowing his lawn at 7am in such a way as to deliberately disturb my sleep.

Then, at about the time that Emma leapt out of bed and headed for the window, it hit me too. It was this:


My first thought was "wow!" My second was "shit, I don't know where my camera is!" My third thought was "yes you do, you silly bugger: it's by your bed." I did my best to verbalise these thoughts, but still being in the asleep-awake transitional phase it was gibberish by the time it came out. Emma, in the same state, obviously had trouble parsing the information, and her response was equally garbled.


The noise we heard, as if you hadn't already worked it out, was the sound of the red balloon's flame being fired. That's how close it was!


I'm quite proud of this shot, having captured the flame in action. I realise these shots are a bit grainy, and I realise that's because I'm using too high an ISO- I just didn't have time to change it, and I don't think I did badly considering the fact that my usual asleep-awake transitional period is best spent confined to duvet as it is, at the best of times, an experience that would make the music videos for Beatles songs look a bit normal.


There wasn't a lot of time before the balloons slipped behind the chimney pots. I would have liked a bit more time to focus and frame the shots (as well as change the flippin' ISO), but it really was a case of point, shoot, sort it out in the crop. Some post-production lightening was necessary, too.

There are a couple more pics from this set on flickr, but they're not all that.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Things To Do in Buckinghamshire: The Hell-Fire Caves

On our way home from dog-sitting we popped in to the charming surroundings of West Wycombe to find out what the less-than-charmingly-but-excitingly named Hell-Fire Caves were all about. I took some photos, as you'll see below. If you'd like to see the rest, they're on flickr.

If you're travelling by car there are plenty of car parks nearby, but I'd suggest that you do what we did- head straight for the caves, but carry on until you get to the very top of the hill. There's a car park up there that's very unlikely to be full (some of the others are very small), and the route back down to the caves takes you past the interesting sights of the Church of St Lawrence, with its striking and unusual golden ball...
The Church of St Lawrebce, West Wycombe
... and the Dashwood Mausoleum, backing on to the church's grounds. Both of these are relevant to the story of the Hell-Fire Caves and are easily missed if you park somewhere else.

The Dashwood Mausoleum, West Wycombe
Be warned, however, that the route down is quite steep and anyone who isn't particularly mobile will find it tough going.

Outside the caves is a courtyard with shaded tables and a cafe/ gift shop from which you can buy food (I had the very tasty Hell-Fire club sandwich; Emma had a cheese & tomato toasted sarnie. We agreed that it was better than anything we could have spent the same amount on at a service station), a small but pleasing selection of relevant gifts, and, of course, tickets to the caves.

The entrance to the Hell-Fire Caves, made scarier by the inclusion of picnic tables.
The caves were hewn from the rock beneath the church and mausoleum by a local workforce who were on the verge of joblessness following a couple of bad harvests. Sir Francis Dashwood employed the locals to carve a series of caves from the chalk rocks which were used as a meeting (and party) venue for the notorious Hell-Fire club made from members of the 18th Century aristocracy.

Can you see the ghost in this image? Actually, it's Emma blundering in front of
my long- exposure photograph.
As you wander through the 1/4 mile of caves and passages, there are regularly placed information boards. Many of these could do with being rewritten, and some repeat information given on previous boards, but they do a decent job of telling the story of the Hell-Fire Caves regardless. The passages are dimly lit: well enough so that you don't bump your head too often, but not so bright as to destroy the air of mystery and history that floats through them.

Regular information boards give an insight as to what went on down here.
As well as the information boards there are also eerie tableaux set up here and there...
Each one of these frozen scenes gave me the willies.
... and they wait until you get a little deeper in before telling you about the two ghosts that are said to wander the passages.

Is it a ghost? No. It's something much more terrifying.
The photograph above shows the eerie spectre that is Emma getting in the way of one of my shots again. She's standing in one of the entrances to the main hall, which is even now available to be booked for private parties. How cool is that?

The caves were dug by hand from the chalk rocks of the West Wycombe hills
It's cold, dark and damp inside the caves, and we were dripped on more than once. There's also an underground river (with a familiar and entirely relevant name). You'll want to make sure you're wearing appropriate footwear because it can be slippery!

These models were scary. I've said that before, haven't I?
It cost us £5 each to get in, and we considered that money well spent for the experience. We were in the caves for an hour or so, so you might want to find other things to do if you're travelling any distance to get there: There's West Wycombe Park and the village to explore, and probably a good number of countryside walks to go on.

If you want more info, it's here:




Thursday, August 16, 2012

Things To Do in Oxfordshire: Didcot Railway Centre

In contrast to yesterday's Living Rainforest trip, we skipped over the border (from Berkshire into Oxfordshire) and back in time to visit the Didcot Railway Centre. Entering the centre from Didcot's actual current railway station, you walk through the subway, a sort of time tunnel, which brings you out into an era of rail travel dominated by steam engines. There are a few photographs included below, but you can see the whole lot at flickr. There are some good'uns, I promise.

This train, on 'running days', will lug you up and down the museum's length as many times as you like.
The Railway Centre is a museum, but not of the usual type: this one's a living, breathing museum of engineering masterpieces. By 'living' I don't mean there are people in period costumes wandering around pretending they're actually in the period you're learning about. Instead, this is an actual half-mile of railway with working locomotives hauling carriages up and down the track. The best bit is that riding in these carriages is included in your ticket price (which is about £8 for an adult).

See the countryside flash past in more comfort than you'd find on a more modern train.
Upon arriving we jumped onto the train, which seemed the obvious thing to do, and we're taken to the other end of the museum, which featured an old station whose purpose was to transfer goods from standard gauge trains to Didcot's broad gauge vehicles.

Didcot's railway comes from a time before track widths were standardised.
Wandering along the length of the track there are engine sheds, a shed in which old carriages are being repaired and restored, a turntable, a museum, shop, cafe, and other assorted attractions including an old air raid shelter and a railway carriage that has been converted into an educational centre primarily aimed at children, and focusing on the science of how steam engines work (this was made accessible by way of a series of interactive stations which really engaged me, and should therefore hold the appeal of many younglings).

Science! And trains! The science of trains! And I got an I. K. Brunel T-shirt. Awesome.
There are plenty of information boards dotted along the site, which is mostly open to the elements so bring a brolly if it's wet and sun cream if it's dry. You can walk or ride from station to station- it's not far, so not too hard on your feet, and you can ride the train as much as you like, so that's not hard on your wallet.

I include this not only for train fans, but also fans of a certain short-lived science fiction TV series.
At the end, we arrived back at the beginning (don't all the best stories?) and, as a quick plot-twist, jumped on the train again to experience one of the first class carriages up and down the track. It was a bit like what you might get if you put your grandparents' living room furniture in a booth on the Hogwarts Express.

You don't get upholstery like that in trains these days. Not even in first class.
Then we grabbed some dinner at the Prince of Wales pub across the road from the station (just in case you're worried about food- there wasn't a lot of choice at the Railway Centre's station cafe).
I snapped this mostly because this stone was laid exactly a year to the day
before I was hatched.
Coincidentally, it's also the same date that Alex Drake's parents were blown up.
If you want more info, here are some links:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Things To Do in Berkshire: The Living Rainforest

Rainforests are hard to get to. They're all inconveniently placed somewhere in Foreign, which means that for this midlander at least, it takes a bit of effort and a bit of cash to get anywhere near one. Having been talked into dog-sitting for my mum at her and her partner's place near Reading, Emma and I were looking for things to do nearby*, and we came across The Living Rainforest, which is in Hampstead Norreys, Berkshire, not far from the M4's junction 13.

Intriguingly, the main attraction of this place is that they bring the rainforest to you. It's essentially a great big hot, wet greenhouse in the middle of the Berkshire Nowhere that's full of trees, plants and animals that you just wouldn't usually come across on a normal wander through any British county. At least, in some cases, you hope you wouldn't.
Here are some fish (I can't remember what type... sorry!) There were also stingrays and turtles swimming around.
Before even purchasing our ticket we were pounced on by a man trying to sell us Wildlife Trust membership, which is about the only thing about the visit that I didnt like: let us get through the door first! It cost us just under £10 each to get in, and the ticket's valid for another 12 months so we can come back again next time we visit my mum. The mission of the charity that runs the Living Rainforest is to promote sustainable living, but this wasn't explicit, and I'd like to have seen more information available on this front.

You grab a map, wrestle your way through some flappy plastic hanging door things, and you're in the first hot and humid enclosure. There's lots of Rainforest foliage all around, but it's the animals that interest me the most: tanks of cockroaches, millipedes and other invertebrates; a chameleon and poison-dart frogs in another enclosure. And then we turned around to find a lizard looking at us, standing in the path that we just walked down! In fact, throughout the Living Rainforest there are a number of creatures that wander (or fly) about amongst the human visitors and seem very happy to have them there.

According to @Morphosaurus this is a Chinese water dragon, Latin name Physignathus cocincinus.
Through a second flappy-plastic airlock, and you're in the even hotter, even wetter 'Amazonica House', which contains more flora and an even more impressive array of fauna including tortoises, terrapins and turtles; monkeys and marmosets, a carpet python and a dwarf crocodile named Courtney (these are all safely contained, though there are a number of birds flying around like they own the place**). One of the employees gave a really interesting talk about Courtney, and I was only disappointed that such talks weren't publicised more effectively- we only found out about it because we happened to turn up as it started. There's also an aquarium containing a variety of fish, ducks, turtles and even stingrays all coexisting in a habitat that seems as natural as possible given that it's not in the Amazon and is surrounded by gawping hom-saps.

It's entirely likely that you'll want to take a break from the oppressively hot atmosphere inside the Living Rainforest (the 22 degree English summer that's too hot for my taste seemed relatively cool once we left). Thankfully there's a cafe and the obligatory gift shop. The cafe sells a limited but appropriate range of lunch-foods at a reasonable price (my baguette was tasty and rammed full of filling, easly justifying the ~£3.50 price tag). The gift shop was the usual affair - largely generic tat that pre-teen minds are always desperate to spend their pocket money on - which is a shame because I thought here were a few possibilities for more Living Rainforest specific items that would be both easy and cheap to produce and potentially very popular***.

This rotter stubbornly refused to look in my direction when I was trying to take a photo of it. I wish I hadn't left my DSLR at home- there were some amazing photo opportunities.
Other things that I feel I should mention include the possibility of taking part in feeding certain animals. This has to be booked in advance, and had a price tag of about £80 for most creatures, with profits going to the upkeep and development of the enclosures. There are also outdoor picnic and play areas. Photography is allowed as long as you don't use a flash: I wish I'd remembered to take my DSLR because there were some cracking photo opportunities, and some of the subjects may have deemed me worth looking at if I was using some equipment more decent than my phone.

Altogether, it's a great experience that I can see appealing to children and adults alike, though it's probably not going to fill up an entire day for you - we were out for about 2 1/2 hours.

Here's where to find more info:



* Emma was looking for things to do. I was probably watching a DVD, or reading, or blogging or something.
** Which, of course, they do.
*** If anyone from the Living Rainforest wants to get in touch I'm more than happy to detail some ideas and collaborate in their production if they think they'd work!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

SPAG Woes - you're / your

I've been spurred into writing another SPAG Woes post: this time it's problems with when to use your and you're, and it was accompanied by the same old argument that comes pre-packaged with most of these punctuation and grammar issues: I didn't get it as a child, so I'm never going to get it.

Piffle. Tosh. Rubbish. Cop-out. This situation is one of those with a couple of fairly simple rules that you need to get your head around. Once you've sorted those, then you're away and your writing becomes that little bit easier to read. As with learning anything the trick is to do it in little chunks, get those sorted and then move on. Here are a couple of those chunks.


When to use "you're"

As I've mentioned in at least one other SPAG Woes post, that apostrophe* shows that there's something missing. In this case,
you're
stands for
you are
If you're not sure whether "you're" would work in your sentence, try it (in your head) with "you are" instead. If "you are" doesn't work, then neither will "you're".

Some examples for you:
  • "Get on you're bikes and ride!"
What I've just typed, if I write it out fully, is "Get on you are bikes and ride!" which makes no sense at all, so it should have been "Get on your bikes and ride!" Much better.
  • "You're overly obsessed with getting your spelling right."
Swap the "you're" for "you are" and see if it works: "You are overly obsessed with getting your spelling right." Bingo.


When to use "your" (or "yours")

This is even easier, and there are two ways to think about it:
  1. (The cheater's way) Use it when "you're" doesn't make sense.
  2. Use it when you're talking about something belonging to someone.
Easy. Now for some examples (you'll recognise the first one):
  • "You're overly obsessed with getting your spelling right."
The first "you're" is right as we've seen before because "you are" fits in its place. The second "your" is right because you're talking about my spelling: it belongs to me.
  • "This is your fish!"
That's my fish, there, and you're being kind enough to point out that it belongs to me, so "your" fits. Let's get it wrong for a moment:
  • "This is you're fish!"
What you're really saying there is "this is you are fish!" which is gibberish.
  • "This fish is yours!"
You're telling me that the fish is mine: it belongs to me: "yours" fits. Note that there's no apostrophe* in "yours". There's no such word as "your's". That apostrophe doesn't belong there. Never. It's an abomination.


Why do I care so much?

I've covered that in this post.


To SPAG-Nazi types

As always, feel free to correct anything you think is wrong with what I'm saying, or to point out any typos or mistakes that I have made myself, but please try to distinguish between genuine mistakes and matters of personal style, experimentation, deliberate rule-breaking and possibly ineffectual attempts at humour.








* That's this thing --> '

Things To Do in Buckinghamshire: The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

Emma waiting patiently in the entrance for me to
stop taking photos. The gates that you can see if
you press your nose to the screen and squint are
recreations of the ones used in the Johnny Depp
retelling of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory: they
were offered the ones from the movie, but were
too big!
On a long-weekend dog-sitting for my mum while she was on holiday, we found a few things to pass our time. This was the first thing we did, en route to my mum's house near Reading. This is a combined photo post and review; you can see more pictures here.

In the picturesque village of Great Missenden, home of beloved children's author Roal Dahl for over thirty years, sits the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Telling Centre.

Upon arrival we went straight for lunch in Cafe Twit. Whilst not a cheap meal, it had a very home-made feel quality to it, and they weren't skimpy on the portions either. The whole experience was in keeping with the Roald Dahl theme, with favourites having their names twisted to sound like they could have come from one of his classic stories.

After lunch we headed into the museum proper. At £6 a head (for adults), it's not a bad entry fee, and we had it even better because we got one free on a Waterstones promotion. It's probably worth mentioning that Cafe Twit and the shop can be accessed without paying for entry.

Once entry is paid for you can wander around to your heart's content, and even leave the site and return later thanks to the wristbands that you're supplied with. Adults are given a visitor's guide, and children get a story ideas book to jot down notes and ideas as they go.

A quote on the wall in Cafe Twit. Do you know which book it's from? And can you spot the superfluous apostrophe...

There's plenty to do:
  • Two galleries outline Roald Dahl's life: one details his childhood and school years; the other takes you through his various experiences as an adult, including many of the events that inspired and shaped the stories that he wrote.
  • The story centre is an area full of inspiration and encouragement for budding young (and young-at-heart) storytellers. With activities to get the creative juices flowing; clothes to dress up in; excerpts from notes and early, unpublished versions of Dahl's stories; a craft room; and comments, both spoken and written, from other famous children's authors on how they write, anyone with a creative bent can run amok.
Emma gleaning inspiration from the master's notes in the story centre.
There's a fair amount of interactivity here, with extracts from his books and memoirs, and displays visually echoing the works of Quentin Blake, whose illustrations will, for me, forever be an integral part of Roald Dahl's mastery.

Whilst the museum is aimed at children between the ages of 6 and 12 I found myself, at 29, immersed in the experience of finding out about the creator of worlds that influenced my own early years. I found out that I'm exactly the same height as Farmer Boggis, whilst Emma is somewhere between Mrs Silver and a human-sized duck. An interactive quiz told me that I'm as sparky as Fantastic Mr Fox*, and I had a sit down in a faithful replica of Dahl's own loved and battered writing armchair. The staff at the museum are very friendly, approachable, and encouraging, regardless of how many digits there are in your age.
There's a feedback board that does nothing to detract from the playful atmosphere of the museum!
Aside from the static exhibitions, there are also other events from time-to-time: craft activities in the craft room, story-telling activities in the courtyard, and we listened to a short but interesting and informative talk about Roald Dahl's writing hut. Most comments that I've found state that their visit lasted 1 - 2 hours, but this would depend on how many of the extra activities you take part in, and on what day you go. I'd advise taking a peak at the calendar in the What's On section of the museum's website before you go so you can find out what extra activities are being laid on at the time of your visit.

Here are some places you can find info:


The sweet shop across the road from the museum is a great place to pick up some treats and gifts.

If you're looking to stay a little longer (it's quite far away from a lot of places**), then there are options to extend your visit:
  • Across the road from the museum is a gorgeous little old-style sweet shop, selling sweets, pic & mix, ice cream, chocolate fudge and all sorts of other things that are good for your mind and bad for your body.
  • If it's a nice day, there are two self-guided walks you can follow: the village trail, and the countryside trail (hard copies are available at the museum).
  • Roald Dahl's garden is open on selected dates during the year.

Sweets in jars: the sign of a good old-style sweet shop.






* I can live with that.
** So is everywhere, I suppose.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Movie Review: Ted

I went to see Ted on Friday. For those not in the know, it's a movie from Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, starring McFarlane, Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis.

The basic premise, without spoiling anything, involves a young John Bennett making a wish for his teddy bear to come to life. It does. Cut to twenty-odd years later and John's now thirty-five and played by Wahlberg, and his teddy (Ted) is still very much alive and kicking.

I'm going to split this review into two parts, now:


You'll Love This Film If:

  • You find Family Guy consistently funny. [I don't]
  • You enjoy Patrick Stewart doing eloquent and received-pronunciation voice-overs which include saying things which are slightly inappropriate. [I do]
  • You were born in the 80s and have some sort of nostalgia for 80s things. [I do]
  • A certain 80s science fiction movie with a soundtrack from Queen had any kind of formative influence on you. [It did in my case]
  • You think Mark Wahlberg's actually a pretty decent actor, and surprisingly versatile given his back catalogue, and that he's pretty damned good at acting with a co-star who's not really there. [I do]
  • You want to give the more 'thinky' parts of your brain a rest, and give the parts that laugh at farts an airing. [I do, from time to time]



You'll Hate This Film If:

  • You dislike gratuitous drug references in movies. [I do]
  • You dislike gratuitous swearing in movies. [I do]
  • You dislike gratuitous sex references in movies. [I do]
  • You dislike gratuitous minority-group slurs in movies (whether or not they're supposed to be 'ironic'). [I do]
  • You've never seen Flash Gordon. [I have]


You'll probably be ticking some of the points in both sections. In this case, you've just got to think about what outweighs what: Flash Gordon was a massive influence on my upbringing, so this cancelled out a couple of the gratuitousness items, for example.

Ted is not big and it's not clever. Intellectually, it's on a similar level to Dude, Where's My Car? but it does have its moments. If you're prepared to dig deep enough you can find some decent social commentary and a moral or two, but the underlying 'drugs and swearing are totally things that are fine to do all of the time' aspect of the movie will stop me rushing out to buy it when it's released on DVD. If you're a Patrick Stewart fan you'll want to see the beginning and the end, and for the Flash Gordon - philes, you'll want to stick around for the middle. If you're someone who owns Family Guy box sets, you'll probably be crying with laughter most of the way through.

One of the best things about this movie is that it is yet another example of Mark Wahlberg's acting talent. His acting opposite a CGI teddy bear is so naturally believable I'm not sure I can believe it. He plays a drug, booze and swearing-obsessed guy but manages to get you to like him anyway, which is good because the movie wouldn't work at all if you didn't.

In short, it's a simple movie that rides on the back of Family Guy in that most of its humour is "you can't say that!" shock-value based, with a little bit of slapstick thrown in now and then. As with Family Guy most of its actual appeal comes from the frequent references to the 80s, frequent references to science fiction, and frequent references to 80s science fiction. If any of this holds any interest for you, and if you're able to set the higher parts of your brain on some other task for the duration of the film, you'll probably enjoy it.