So long Terry, and thanks for the stories!

hatOn Thursday 12th March 2015, the world lost a funny, crazy, wonderful mind. A man who gave life to numerous colourful, vibrant characters. The creator of a world so rich, lively and detailed that for many it is real. That man is Sir Terry Pratchett.

Many authors have created impressive, expansive and detailed worlds. Stephen King gave us Mid-World. Tolkien dreamed up Middle Earth with its myriad locations. George R. R. Martin took readers to Westeros and Essos. Each one has its own charm, stunning locations and well-crafted characters. But none quite come close to the wonder of Sir Terry’s Discworld – a round, flat disc of land balanced upon the back of four elephants, stood on the shell of a giant turtle that swims through the blackness of space. There aren’t many minds wondrous enough to dream up such a world.

Its many continents, countries, cities and town leap out of the pages with a life like no others. Such is the level and attention to detail given to them, that it was easy to imagine the feel of the sea breeze and the roar of the waters of the Rimwise Ocean. You can almost smell the fetid odour of the river Ankh and the bustling streets of Ankh-Morpork.

I arrived late to the Discworld party. Naively believing the entire series to be for children or teenagers, I never really gave them a chance. I began to hear of more “grown-ups” having read the books, so my curiosity began to rise. I purchased my first book, The Colour of Magic obviously, back in August 2011. Before this, I had seen the made-for-TV films, thinking I would try them out and see what all the fuss was about. I immediately fell in love with the characters, Rincewind and Death especially.

So I purchased book 1, and devoured it with a hunger akin to that of a man who has trekked for months through the sands of Klatch. And that was it – I was absolutely hooked. From that point I blazed a trail with gathering pace across the Disc, storming my way through 40 books. Having read little else in my wild attempt to catch up, I flew through the 40th and final (for now) book, Raising Steam.

I am a voracious reader of books. I love the works of many authors. There aren’t many novels by Stephen King I haven’t read. James Rollins, J. K. Rowling, Jeff Lindsay and numerous others have taken up residence inside my Kindle. Many of these, if not all, will be read and re-read over the years, such is the enduring quality of some of the top authors in the world.

That being said, none have ever made me truly belly laugh out loud in private, in public, anywhere I could stop for long enough to read. When I had caught up, having read Raising Steam not long after it came out, I had a strange feeling – not sure what to read next. That said, I definitely can’t wait to re-read the books, and visit what feel like old friends in familiar places once more. So after some 70 books, and a whole new world, we finally have to say goodbye to The Man in the Hat – that blasted embuggerance having finally got the better of him.

While it is never easy to say goodbye to people, I like to think he left us, in the company of old friends, something like this.

Lying in his bed, his eyes fluttered open. He looked around, friends, family, even his cat didn’t seem to notice his awakening, too consumed with sadness. Puzzled, he looked around, eyes stopping on the figure sat in the corner of the room.

Covered head to toe in black robes, white bony hands and feet showing, he propped a large scythe against the wall. His eyes shone with a blue light, a grin upon his skull. I know skulls don’t have any other choice but to grin, but this time, I am quite sure, it was sincere and as warm as a grin from a skull could be.

“Oh bugger” exclaimed the man in the bed. “I guess my timer just ran out of sand?”
The hooded skeletal figure inclined his head forward, the merest hint of a nod. “Well, it had to happen sometime, I just didn’t think it would be so soon.”

The blazing blue eyes looked at him for a moment, before a deep voice seemingly filled the room. “NOBODY EVER DOES” he stated. “BUT DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING” smiled Death, “JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.”

With a sullen look on his face, the man lay there staring in to the face of Death. “I know that, I may be losing my memory but I know I came up with that line!” And without any obvious change, Death appeared to grin even wider. “VERY TRUE, OLD FRIEND. WITHOUT YOU, NONE OF US WOULD HAVE BEEN GIVEN LIFE…OR DEATH IN SOME CASES.”

The man, his black hat on the bedside table, stared at Death, then broke out in laughter. “It’s been a good run, hasn’t it?” the man said, beaming ear to ear.
Death stood up and collected his scythe. The man noticed for the first time, a small, robbed rodent-like skeleton perched on Death’s shoulder. “IT HAS BEEN A VERY GOOD RUN. YOU GAVE LIFE TO AN ENTIRE WORLD, AND MIRTH AND JOY TO ANOTHER. BUT NOW, I FEAR IT IS TIME FOR US TO GO, TERRY.”

Terry got out of bed, with a disconcerting feeling as he looked back to see his body still lying there. He grabbed his hat, put it on, and stepped over to Death. A skeletal hand reached out, opening a door that Terry was sure had not been there before, revealing an endless expanse of sand under a starry sky.

He took hold of the sleeve of Death’s flowing black robe, and passed through the door, lined on both sides by familiar faces. Faces of those he gave life to. “I hope there’s Thud where I’m going, I haven’t played a game in years!” exclaimed Terry, as he walked with Death into the Dark Desert, under the endless sky.

So long Terry, see you in the Black Desert, somewhere under the endless sky.

terrydeathPlease leave your memories in the comments. Even leave your favourite Terry/Discworld quotes, if there are enough then I will feature them in a later post! 🙂

That Festive Feeling

The nights have drawn in and the days have gotten shorter. With a speed even Usain Bolt could only dream of, Christmas has snuck up on us again. That’s right, it’s almost Christmas again! In fact, there’s just 3 more sleeps until the jolly fat man in red squeezes down the chimney, steals all our milk, mince pies and carrots for his red nosed buddy, and leaves a few treats under the tree.

My inner child has been in overdrive this year, with this being my first Christmas in my new house. Since late November it has been screaming louder than Buddy the Elf at the thought of Santa’s arrival. Without a shadow of a doubt, Christmas is my favourite season of all – as if you hadn’t already guessed that yet.

The obligatory, hideous Christmas jumper gets an airing ahead of its annual appearance. My car has been a cacophony of seasonal tunes with my yearly playlist getting played on repeat. And who can forget all the wonderful Christmas films. And it doesn’t seem to matter how old these films are (Home Alone was released 25 years ago this year!) they never loose their charm. I have seen plenty of them every single Christmas, and I never tire of them.

And it also means the Christmas adverts start in earnest on our TVs. For the last few years, here in the UK the mantle of best advert has pretty much fallen squarely on the shoulders of the department store John Lewis. First they had their snow people adverts, then last year they brought us The Bear and The Hare. In both cases the company managed to play on the emotion of the season to impressive effect. This year they have given us Monty the Penguin. While last year’s ad was a tall order to best, they have at least managed to once again strike the emotional cord again.

But this year, another UK supermarket has jumped on the band wagon. Sainsbury’s have stepped in to the ring with their attempt at using emotion and the depths of human sentiment to get us rushing through their doors. The approach here was to tie in with the centenary of the beginning of World War I. More to the point, they have played on the well-known account of a ceasefire between both sides on Christmas Day 1914. Both sides met on the battlegrounds once again, not as enemies, but as humans. Stories where shared, laughter, even a rumoured game of football between German and British men. In the story painted by Sainsbury’s, a British soldier embraces the spirit of the season in giving a German soldier his coat, knowing his Christmas gift of chocolate from home was still in the pocket.

While it makes for a wonderful idea, I cannot help but feel there is something slightly wrong about the idea of selling Christmas off the back of a heart-warming story during one of the most horrifying events in History, but that’s just my opinion. And while these work on the heart strings, you can never beat the age old classic: glimpses of a red lorry through the trees while the now-famous “Holidays are coming” chant is repeated. Nothing comes close to the brilliant Coca Cola adverts.

But before I go, the geek in me wants to share this fantastic spin on a Christmas song from the crew of the USS Enterprise, enjoy!

Well all that leaves me to say is have a very Merry Christmas everyone! I am off to listen to some Christmas songs, while settling down to read that all-time classic, A Christmas Carol, and make some new Festive traditions in my first home.

Do you have any Christmas traditions – new or old? What are your favourite songs, films and adverts at this time of year? Or more importantly, what does Christmas mean to you? Let me know in the comments section! 🙂

The Longest (D-)Day

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”Winston Churchill


Image credit: Robert F. Sargent/U.S. Coast Guard

On June the 6th 1944, one of the most audacious, strategically important military operations, Operation Overlord, was put in to action. An attempt to gain a foothold in Continental Europe and launch an assault on Nazi forces. The operation started with the single largest naval invasion ever, Operation Neptune. 6939 sea-faring craft including Naval attack vessels, Merchant Navy ships and some 4126 landing craft crossed the English Channel with an aerial support from 11,590 aircraft.
With the French coast coming in to view, the landing craft pressed on under the intense bombardment of the German heavy artillery installations depositing 156,115 soldiers into the waters of the 5 beaches – Sword, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Juno. The aerial invasion dropped some 23,400 airborne troops behind enemy lines in the French countryside, launching an assault on the German troops and free the surrounding towns and villages.
Numerous soldiers died as they disembarked their landing craft, not even making it out of the surf, all the while a salvo of heavy artillery being exchanged between German installations and Allied Naval craft. As men made landfall, there was no time for celebration. The beaches, littered with barbed wire and immense metal structures designed to scupper the landing craft, causing them to drop their men in waist-deep swells, became killing fields.
Those that made it to land were faced with a stretch of beach, and a rising sand bank littered with armed German soldiers and fortified concrete gunnery bunkers, not to mention hidden mines. Against all odds, Allied forces broke down the enemy lines, and after intense, brutal and bloody fighting, the beaches were won. The strategic bridges at Benouvile and Ranville were captured, and the German forces were pushed back. The beaches were safe enough for amphibious vehicles and tanks to land for the ground assault.
Operation Fortitude succeeded in its job of diverting German attention and masking the true location of the assault. Without this success, the Nazi forces would have been far stronger. Operation Overlord was a success. But it was not without heavy human cost.
Having been lucky enough to visit the beaches of Normandy, see some of the German artillery placements, and have the moving experience of visiting military cemeteries for both sides, I am left in no doubt how important this day was. How vastly different would the recent past, present and future of Europe, and beyond, be if the day ended in failure?
70 years on to the day, and we still honour and remember the sacrifice, the losses, and the importance of what those hundreds of thousands of men have done for the world. And may they, and their actions, never be forgotten.

Does charity really begin at home?

Turn on the telly or radio and you’ll here adverts for numerous charities helping people both at home and in far-flung corners of the world. Walk in to any town, city or shopping centre and you will be hard pressed to find someone asking for your money on behalf of one charity or another. They can be found positioned tactically on a busy thoroughfare or in the doorway or entrance of a large shop or store. It isn’t exactly a rare site to walk past a homeless person hoping for any spare change.

A great many of us are too quick to pretend we have a call on our mobile phone, to be suddenly engrossed in something else, or even to just plain look the other way and hurry past. And this isn’t meant as a criticism, with so many people seemingly in desperate need of our money – which, let’s face it, is stretched ever thinner at a time of rising costs. Lots of people have a charity or cause closer to their hearts than others for one reason or other, and they tend to donate exclusively to these. No problem there, I would be the first to admit I do this – I can’t afford to help all charities, so I drop my spare change to those I want to.

But how many of us mutter and mumble under our breath about being hassled by charity collectors on a busy, rainy day in town? I would wager a good number of us do, I have done. But after seeing a video doing the rounds on the World Wide Web, I will certainly think again about how I react. In the video, a man sets out to test our reactions under certain circumstances, by standing in a busy town centre in the all-too-familiar sandwich board. Take a look at what happened.

Ok, so this guy takes things to an extreme with his choice of language clearly intent on provoking a deep feeling in people who he accosts. And rather pleasingly, most people he encounters (including a police officer) reacts with disgust and indignation at his attitude and offensive sentiment. But it’s the second half of the video that certainly makes me think. Once he swaps the sandwich board and flyers for something far less offensive, and tries to drum up support for the poor, things completely flip on their head. The masses of people walking by him appear to not even notice he is there, completely ignoring him and walking on past.

The video hasn’t made me decide to donate to every charity collector I pass, I simply cannot afford to. But I will think twice before I grumble and moan under my breath about the number of collectors after my spare change on a cold, wet winter day in town. Many charities are worthy of our support, and while they may not be my charities of choice, they still do good work for those they help.

Anti-whaling, not anti-shark culling…

So recently the Australian government won a landmark international court case to ban Japanese whaling. While whaling will continue, the international courts have ruled that hunting of cetaceans in the Southern Ocean of the Antarctic is to end. On the face of it, this is a wonderful, noble cause for the Australian government to back. The unnecessary hunting of the gentle ocean mammals is abhorrent, and has no foundation – for scientific reasons or otherwise.

Dig a little deeper, though, and this court cases smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order. While calling for the world to ban the Japanese from whaling, they continue in their cull of sharks perceived to be hazardous to human life. While no Great Whites have as yet been caught and killed, if and when they are, this could pose a major problem for the species. Great whites take a long time to reach sexual maturity, longer than it takes them to grow to 3 metres (the minimum size of sharks being culled). Killing off the animals based on their size will tip an already vulnerable (according to the IUCN’s red list of endangered animals) animal closer to extinction. The 3m kill rule means large numbers of the potential breeding stock of great whites could be at risk, which is of great concern given how little is known about the global population of great whites.

To date, the government have endorsed the culling of 63 tiger sharks, two makos and a black tip shark. Not to mention the “collateral” in terms of non-shark species accidentally caught or killed. But let’s pat them all on the shoulder for supporting the ban of Japanese whaling, in the hopes it provides a convenient smoke screen to their own ocean culling.


Mercury Rising

From the evening of February 1st, people in the Northern Hemisphere should be able to see Mercury with the naked eye. Until February 4th the bleak, sun-dried planet will be visible in the post-sunset sky. So with a passion in photography I grabbed my camera and tripod, and headed out to the Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire, UK. I set up my camera about 30 minutes before sunset, and started taking a few shots of the setting sun while waiting for the appearance of Mercury.

As the sun dropped towards, then below, the horizon a thin sliver of silver moon began to rise. Knowing that Mercury should appear somewhere below and just off the side of the moon, I stayed where I was, on an exposed hilltop with strong gusts and biting wind chill. As the moon rose, clouds moved in obscuring much of the sky, including where Mercury would show. Needless to say, I never got to see the planet closest to the sun.

On the plus side, I did get to see a different astronomical phenomenon. Given the time of year, and position of the Earth and moon in relation to the sun, there is currently a very narrow crescent moon. Sunlight reflected off the surface of the earth, very faintly lights up the dark side of the moon (no not the Pink Floyd album!). This phenomenon is called Earthshine, and allows us to see the outline of the entirety of the Moon beyond the crescent in the sunlight.

So I stood in the biting wind to catch a glimpse of Mercury which was obscured by cloud, but I did at least manage to snap a few shots of the crescent moon and Earthshine, so it wasn’t a total bust!

Crescent moon and Earthshine

Crescent moon and Earthshine

Death by Rainbow – Killer Crustaceans

Mantis shrimp1

Take a look at the picture above. What do you see? A fantastically multichromatic sea creature? Close. What you are looking at is kaleidoscopic, rainbow-coloured harbinger of death in crustacean from. This is the peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus). This brightly coloured, vicious sea dweller is by far the most impressive of crustaceans. I referred to them as harbingers of death, and they are a lethal animal among the sea floor residents, but they are impressive for another reason, too.

The peacock mantis shrimp is widely considered to have the most complex visual system within the animal kingdom. To start with, each eye sits on the end of its own eye stalk. This allows each eye to work and move independently from each other. The peacock mantis shrimp has compound eyes capable of viewing light waves beyond the visual range of many creatures. Humans can see light, with the 3 receptors in our eyes that have wavelengths above ultraviolet and below infrared (between 400 and 700nm). The mantis shrimp eye has more receptors, allowing it to see light across the whole spectrum. They can even see linear and circular polarised light. To put it in to context, humans can only see linear polarised light, and only if they are wearing polarised sunglasses.

Anyway, enough of that, what about the harbinger of death bit? Well the mantis shrimp has a pair of claw-like appendages. These claws can strike at around 50mph in water, with acceleration close to that of a .22 calibre bullet. In larger species these appendages end with a kind of club. This allows them to smash open the shells of crabs to feed on the soft flesh inside. In some cases, they can hit hard enough to break the glass of an aquarium. It isn’t just the blow itself that causes damage. The speed and force of the blows creates a cavitation bubble between the limb and the surface it hits. The bubbles form in an area of low pressure. As the pressure levels out, the bubbles collapse creating a shockwave of high force, in addition to the 1,500 Newton strike force. A double strike effect. If the physical blow misses, the effect of the collapse of bubbles can stun prey. Check out the video to see these amazing creatures in action.

For an alternative view on why the mantis shrimp is such a spectacular creature, check out this cartoon by The Oatmeal as to why it is his new favourite animal!

What is the most impressive creature you have seen? Or what is your favourite animal? Let me know in the comments section! 🙂