New Year, New Rules

Well, we did it: we made it to 2019!¬†ūüéȬ†ūü•ā

And with the big change of the calendars comes that yearly opportunity to set goals and challenges whilst just generally realigning personal direction. I’m not one to believe that the New Year is necessarily the best time, nor certainly the only time, when you should take a pause to evaluate priorities, but it does have a nice feel to it.

More importantly, after just over six months living relatively consistent lives, I think we’re finally sure enough of our surroundings to begin forcing them into a more rounded shape. Drumming is one clear area we’ve managed to create consistency, but¬†there’s plenty of¬†room to ensure that what we want to do and what we’re doing aligns as closely as possible.

Personally, that means reevaluating my goals. Yes, I absolutely want the experiences to keep on flowing, which is good because we already have a whisky evening booked, two gigs sorted, a climbing experience to work out and the previously discussed Zoo membership to make full use of. But it also means finding ways to refocus on hobbies and make our London life more, well, self-centred.

The Year That Was

Two years ago I gave myself a Big Challenge to write one article a week, minimum, for an entire year. Last year I shied away from making any big, bold, public claims; with an impending move across the country and loss of a job,¬†long term commitments needed to be chosen wisely. Which isn’t to say the New 52 Challenge was frivolous ‚Äď it likely played a significant role in my career change over the course of 2018 ‚Äď but that type of thing would have become a distraction.

That said, I did write down a list of goals that I still wanted to accomplish over the past year, so that became a good place to start thinking about ideas for 2019. I’ll preface this by saying my 2018 To Do list didn’t exactly have a great strike rate, but nevertheless, here it is:

  1. Find a new job¬†‚úĒÔłŹ
  2. Read 12 books¬†‚úĒÔłŹ
  3. Finish all outstanding MiMs¬†‚ĚĆ (hah!)
  4. Migrate CMS¬†‚ĚĆ (though I have at least had a good play with Directus and Grav)
  5. Create better review system¬†‚ĚĆ
  6. Add social streams to theAdhocracy¬†‚ĚĆ
  7. Start making better use of Twitter¬†‚úĒÔłŹ
  8. Upload 4 videos¬†‚≠ē (1/4 definitively, but also a few more ‚Äď not what I’d intended but not awful)
  9. Sort out hard drives¬†‚≠ē (I’m in a much better place but still only about 50% done)
  10. Find a better organisational tool set¬†‚úĒÔłŹ

I think it’s most interesting, when looking back, that photography factored so little in my plans, despite it being a pretty central hobby. That’s more of a shame because I did manage to hit some good milestones in terms of rate of turnaround, uploading and even (finally) printing out/framing some of my shots for the new flat, and it would be nice to have been able to get some more¬†‚úĒÔłŹ in there, but oh well.

Onwards and upwards!

When looking at what the next 12 months could hold, and what it needs to be, there are two main standouts. The first is to find more time for personal projects and creativity; the second is to begin planning for 2020. That might seem a little odd ‚Äď to make the goal of one year to focus on the next right from day one ‚Äď but 2020 is going to be a¬†big one. It’s a new decade, so for fellow children of 1990 that means a new leading number on the age dropdown. Turning 30 really doesn’t bother me, but it does offer a good opportunity and excuse, so it’s fair to say that it would be wise to begin planning ASAP.

Starting a new decade also has an even greater feeling of a changing of the guard, so as 2019 becomes the last year of the… teenies (what do we call this decade?)… it seems like a good excuse to focus inwards and generally get things in order.

With that all said, I’m not planning any big overarching projects or challenges for 2019, but I do want¬†my to do list to be public, hence this article. So without any further ponderings, these are my big goals for 2019:

Photography

  1. Finalise all photos taken in 2018 by the end of March
  2. Upload at least 52 photographs to portfolio channels (500px/Instagram)
  3. Print out and hang more photos
  4. Get my Quiraing shot framed
  5. Go on at least two specifically photography related day trips with friends/solo

General Life

  1. Finally finish sorting out my hard drives
  2. Create a process for organising video files
  3. Finish digitising my magazine backlog
  4. Plan the big 3-0 trip
  5. Visit the zoo at least 6 times

theAdhocracy

  1. Create a personal logotype and logomark
  2. Migrate CMS!!!
  3. Create a better review system
  4. Add social streams/focus on homesteading
  5. Publish at least 12 articles

So those are my goals. Some are “borrowed” from 2018 in the hopes that they may actually happen, some hark back to years long past, whilst others are brand new. The overarching themes are to drill down into photography and flesh out what theAdhocracy should be, which is a digital playground and home base, somewhere that’s just mine. I want to move away from trying to branch out or diversify hobbies and, instead, spend 12 months really getting to grips with what I know I already enjoy.

Obviously I still have other goals, some loftier (it would be great to learn React, for instance) and some less serious (I really wanted to add both “Play archery tag at least once” and “Minimum one full, extended LOTR marathon” to the lists), but those will remain nice-to-haves rather than focused goals.

Hopefully in twelve months time I’ll be able to write-up a success story, but even if the hit rate is as low as 2018 (or lower) I think simply putting these plans out there¬†and having somewhere to refer back to will be a useful tool. So here’s to an exciting, progressive, focused, and fun-filled 2019!¬†ūüćĽ

2018: The Year of London

It’s that odd time of year, the bit between Christmas and New Year where time doesn’t really flow like you expect it to. No one knows what day of the week it is and everything seems to be simultaneously coming to an end and sizing up the starting blocks again. For a lot of people, it’s a time without clear purpose that’s bookended by very distinctive cultural markers themed on rebirth, which makes it pretty ideal for reflection.

It’s also the time of year when no one really wants to be working, and end of year lists/reviews/summations become ideal brainless exercises requiring little creative input and almost no resources!

So here we are, on the edge of a new dawn and taking a moment to pause and reflect on the year that was. A lot of people are regarding 2018 as the calendar equivalent of a dumpster fire, but personally it’s been a pretty big and progressive twelve months… albeit ones where a lot of good habits (*cough* blogging *cough*) fell by the wayside.

Which isn’t to say that writing has been completely absent; the first half of the year had a decent number of posts (8 total) spanning a range of topics. In a way, they quite neatly sum up my own interests, covering technology, superheroes, palaeontology, design/futurism, world building/sci-fi, photography, problem solving, and the beauty of nature. It may not be much, but it’s a fine spread, plus there’s probably something¬†I could be arguing about quality over quantity (maybe).

As ever, there are also plenty of drafts that never quite saw the light of day. I’ve put together some musings on the problems that RSS feeds have when their owners don’t let you know they’re moving URLs; some of the influential voices I turn to, both online and off; a few scattered notes on Excel, VBA and the Grav CMS; and about half a dozen MiMs (remember those!).

On which note, it’s worth mentioning that whilst my published presence has been mediocre-to-none-existent over the course of 2018, I have been at least vaguely tracking my thoughts, reviews and ideas via more private channels. Workflowy continues to be a cornerstone of my productivity, as is Lightroom where I’m pleased to report my photo editing has continued relatively consistently. I’ve also been getting increasingly drawn in to Trello¬†as a way to track to-do lists and ideas in general, in no small part to our complete reliance on the app at work.

Work. That’s been a pretty big, overarching theme of 2018 for me. I handed in my notice at Synertec not long into the year and left fully in March; by April we had settled in Fulham, and in early May I started my new role as Copywriter (now Content Manager ‚Äď how time flies!) with Talent Point, which was a pretty big shift from working as a developer. In that sense my actual published work has accelerated, with a full 20 posts appearing on the company website since I started. I didn’t write all of them, but (with one exception) I was heavily involved each week from the start of June ‚Äď so my actual writing output this year hasn’t been too shabby at all!

Writing for a living has definitely been a major part of why this blog has gone almost entirely unloved since July, as I struggle to find time or motivation. Back in Taunton, during the New 52 era, I’d spend most lunch breaks at work writing or editing drafts, but now that’s my job lunchtimes have become a lot less personally productive! On top of which, living in London means much longer commutes and longer hours, so by the time I’m home my focus is on finding food and being brain dead, not personal projects. It’s something both Alison and I need to start getting better at, so hopefully it won’t be quite as quiet in the months to come (though where have we heard that before, before, before…).

London also means an active social life, which is another drain on project/blog time, but not one I’m complaining about! We’ve become members of the V&A, Kew Gardens and (most recently and excitedly) ZSL! Plus, we now actually live somewhere with¬†culture, which for me has meant getting to see/attend (in no particular order and probably incomplete):

  • The Book of Mormon (musical)
  • Goldfish (gig)
  • Harry Potter Experience inc. Behind the Seams (talk/experience/museum)
  • Todd Terje (gig/street party)
  • Swan Lake by Matthew Bourne (ballet)
  • Emancipator Ensemble (gig)
  • An Evening with Dougal Dixon & Darren Naish for the relaunch of After Man (talk)
  • Goldfish (gig ‚Äď yes twice, yes worth it!)
  • Dinosaurs in the Wild (experience… hard to explain but awesome!)
  • Parcels (gig)
  • Biopsy of an App (UX/UI) with RED Academy (talk)

Without mentioning the countless museum exhibitions, listed buildings, parks, or general history. We’ve watched the sun set from the Walkie Talkie¬†Sky Garden, eaten at Lima, gone on a 12 Pubs of Xmas crawl, taken a boat trip around the Thames, learnt how to drum and then performed at Walthamstow Garden Party and as part of a demonstration with over 700,000 people, walked most of Regent’s Canal and a good stretch of the Thames, discovered countless amazing pubs, restaurants or just interesting places, and¬†now live somewhere with both parakeets and close friends in easy walking distance. One of those is very new; the other had been over half a decade!

But of course our life hasn’t been completely lived within the capital (or the moving van before that). We’ve had some excellent outings this year, some just for fun and others to celebrate huge milestones with our friends and family. The annual trip to Polzeath was shifted to coincide with a family commitment ceremony, taking place on the beach in stunning conditions and creating a thoroughly joyous occasion. We’ve also been back up to my home grounds of Cumbria to see one of my oldest friends tie the knot at our secondary school (a real trip down memory lane!) and to Sheffield for the first of the Uni group to exchange rings.

Individual outings, such as to the blogged about Vyne estate, have been a little less common, largely because we’ve tended to focus on London rather than travelling out, but we’ve still managed a good variety. Particularly memorable outings include a day spent at the Hawk Conservancy Trust with Al’s family and a trip to Oxford for the excellent (and now touring) Making of Middle Earth exhibition, both of which deserve their own full posts (much like most of what’s being covered in this one!).

Oh, and of course, we had a brief outing to South Africa for my Gran’s 90th birthday. It was great to see most of the extended family,¬†and the celebration went down well, but it also provided opportunities to explore some new areas. We spent the first few days actually staying in Cape Town, something I’ve never done before, which meant seeing a whole new side to the city. Then, for our second week, we went on a short but incredibly varied road trip with my parents up through the Cederberg, visiting the stunning wildflower meadows (we got the timing pretty perfect for the first superbloom in years!) and kokerboom trees, before looping back to the Cape down the West Coast. It was a beautiful, relaxing and incredibly fun trip, even if our wallets are still recovering!

All of which is to say that London has been a very good move, our flat has become a real home and our jobs have settled in extremely nicely. For us, at least, 2018 has been a year of big and positive change, and a chance to really begin defining our lives moving forward. It’s been a stressful year at times, but that’s all happily behind us, paving the way for a very exciting 2019 and beyond!

 

Where Are the Dragons?

Rewilding vast landscapes may bring wolves to restore balance to the natural world.

But rewilding the child will bring dragons to help fight for it.

Yesterday, we visited The Vyne, a National Trust location in Hampshire. I’d love to say that we’d gone to dig into the history of the area but, really, we went to¬†catch-up with family¬†and enjoy a mini break away from everything else (Saturday had been hectic for a whole other reason).

It marked the first time in months that I¬†picked up¬†my big camera, expecting to get lost in the treasures, tapestries and architecture of the big house. What actually happened was that, just before our timed entry started, I realised my audio recorder had fallen off my bag and disappeared, lost forever (despite some frantic searching). That left me a little lacking in inspiration, so whilst the house was¬†extremely interesting, I’m afraid that I barely took a single shot before lunch.

Once we’d eaten, we decided to explore the wider grounds and get away from the manicured lawns and beautifully arranged vegetable beds. The grounds at The Vyne are dominated by water, with a series of man made lakes and rivers running down the centre, captured and diverted from naturally occurring wetlands ‘upstream’. Near the main house, the lakeshore is dominated by viewing spots and feels artifical, though pleasant. As you get further away, though, the wild creeps back in and starts to dominate the senses.

Huge banks of rosebay willowherb, thistle and willow rise up to meet deciduous forest.¬†I was immediately struck by the wealth of¬†butterflies surrounding us. The water was alive with movement from the fish beneath and the calm (at times) paddling of mallard, coot, moorhen, swan and tufted duck above. Squirrels chattered through the trees, momentarily disrupting bird song. And everywhere ‚Äď everywhere! ‚Äď that you looked,¬† bright blue damselflies¬†darted through the air, never breaking their restless patrol of the waterways.

It was fantastic! I routinely trailed the group, pausing to watch a hoverfly balance precariously on the breeze or male beautiful demoiselles fighting over a patch of stream. It re-energised me, and whilst I doubt I got a single “keeper” of a shot I had a lot of fun trying. It made me realise how little time I’ve had with¬†nature over the past 12 months.

Since moving to London in March (what?! yes, this has happened but more to come on that later) I haven’t felt disconnected from the wild. We live near both a large park and the Thames, we have parakeets routinely flying overhead and we even have a small roof ‘garden’ which is becoming increasingly green. Comparing day-to-day sightings, I probably see more large mammals and garden birds then we ever did in Taunton or even Devon.

But there is something different about truly wild places. Something that’s hard to pin down, to formalise or describe as a tick list. The areas around The Vyne aren’t necessarily “wild” in the true sense; after all, they form part of a heavily managed and well funded estate and are based on a Tudor-through-Victorian notion of upper class land management, not natural forces. But they reward and, crucially, encourage exploration ‚Äď they have¬† secrets!

The quote at the top of this article is from a post on Rewilding Britain by Gill Lewis, which neatly puts into words some of my instinctive feelings about the nature in London. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, and I am joining hundreds of others in trying to create a fragmented network of wild(er) spaces across the capital, but there’s something that still feels lacking.

Perhaps it’s the never ceasing background hum of traffic and Heathrow, or perhaps it’s that even the least manicured space still feels somehow ‘allowed’ to exist, as if its fate is very much in the hands of the people around it. But something imperceptible was different when I walked around the man-made lakes at The Vyne compared to the man-made gardens at Kew. Somehow, there¬†were just fewer¬†dragons…

 

How to Fix a Broken Embedded Flickr Album

I recently had need to embed a Flickr album, as I’ve done many times before. When I published the article, however, the album was broken and only showed a single image. Odd, sure, but I figured I had just copied the wrong embed code; an hour later and I was fairly certain I hadn’t.

The Problem

What I wanted was a gallery that showed all the photos in the Flickr album in order, with left and right arrow-buttons for navigation. Something like this:

Kew Gardens & Science Museum

Looks great, simple to use and what I’ve always had when using the Flickr embed codes in the past. The problem, though, was that instead of a nice gallery I just had this:

Kew Gardens & Science Museum

Looks similar, but it’s just a static image linked to the album page on my Flickr profile; there’s no way to scroll or navigate through the photos. Weird right! A few hours Googling around the subject later and the bad news is that the issue is frequently encountered, but not consistent, so doesn’t appear to be¬†considered as a bug. The good news, though, is that you can manually force an embed code to behave in the ‘correct’ way, you just need to know how.

How to Fix It

Full thanks should be directed at Flickr user studyabroadwmu who posted the missing piece to the puzzle in a Flickr support thread last year.

The trick is noticing the seemingly innocuous difference in the anchor tag of the embed code generated for the two albums above:

<a title="Kew Gardens & Science Museum" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/161720506@N06/albums/72157669217526758" data-flickr-embed="true" data-footer="true">

As opposed to:

<a title="Kew Gardens & Science Museum" href="https://www.flickr.com/gp/161720506@N06/y5R7Wu" data-flickr-embed="true" data-footer="true">

Why the bottom embed code was generated using some kind of URL shortening is not clear, but that’s the root of the issue. Want to fix it, just open the album in Flickr and take a look at the URL in the browser bar, which in this case would be:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/161720506@N06/sets/72157669217526758/

Now copy that and paste it over the value of the href attribute and, hey presto, you should have a working embedded gallery once again!

Autumn Colours at Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens & Science Museum

What’s this, a new article? Containing a new Flickr album? Well, who would have thought!

So yes, I’m back, hopefully with some more frequent updates (at long last) and definitely with quite a bit more photography related posts. Life has gone through some fairly big changes since my last post back in February, big enough to warrant their own post at some point. The brief version is that I’m now unemployed and living in London; exciting times!

That has meant time to finally sit down and begin working through the backlog of photographs. It has also meant a fiber internet connection! I’d hoped to have started publishing albums again as soon as we were connected, and pretty much had the above ready to go, but then I hit a bump in the road. Flickr has decided that my log-in details are no longer correct and Yahoo has deleted my associated email account. It doesn’t seem to matter that I still have access to the backup email account, the linked mobile phone or that I could provide private information on the account, after a protracted fight with Yahoo customer support I was left with two options: delete the original account or ignore it. The former sounded appealing, but a quirk of the Flickr back-end means that deleting the account doesn’t free up the username or URL, the two elements I most want…

So, whilst theAdhocracy on Flickr will live on, it will have to do so on a new profile, with a new name: theAdhocracyUK. I still hold out some hope that the recent acquisition of Flickr by SmugMug may allow greater flexibility in the future, but until then I invite you to follow the new me. As with my last outing on the platform, any images predominantly features friends/family (you know, memory shots rather than composed “photographs”) will only be visible if you’re following me and have been approved.

I’ve re-uploaded the original three albums, even taking the opportunity to add better captions and tweak a few of the exposures along the way. With that all (finally) complete, I’m back to where I thought I was two months ago and can begin sharing some new photos. So, with that said, up top I’ve uploaded a few shots from our trip to London last October.

We came across to London primarily to visit Kew Gardens with Alison’s parents, which was my first time to the area. To say we enjoyed it would be an understatement; in fact, we recently became members! Despite being mid-autumn, the beds were in full flower and offset beautifully against the turning leaves, plus the Hive sculpture (well pictured above) was fascinating. It was a great day out and a very fun visit.

The rest of the photos were taken at the Science Museum in South Kensington, predominantly in an exhibit they were running at the time on Asia/India. It was both wonderfully put together and extremely informative, plus the general design of the museum really impressed me. Overall then, a very successful weekend and I’m glad to finally be able to share it; expect more to come to Flickr soon (plus 500px¬†and Instagram).

Solving Ancient Riddles with Neural Networks

A page of the Voynich manuscript showing a number of plant like drawings and several paragraphs in an unknown language or encrypted text
Could the Voynich Manuscript just be early world building? Image in public domain.

I, like just about everyone who has ever heard of it, have been fascinated by the Voynich manuscript for years. The idea of an eldritch textbook, written in an encrypted script and with baffling, other worldly diagrams and drawings is ripe for all manner of conspiracy and conjecture. That it is over half a century old and has managed to survive relatively intact just fuels those fires.

Personally, though, I don’t subscribe to any of the extra-terrestrial, spiritual or religious interpretations for the book. Honestly, whilst any of those would be ground breaking and revolutionary to our understanding of the universe,¬†they also dismiss¬†something far more interesting. The Voynich manuscripts could be some of the earliest genre fiction on the planet! That idea is¬†genuinely more exciting to me; to find definitive proof that people 600 years ago were just as happy inventing fictional worlds, in entirety,¬†as I am today.

Of course, ancient fiction is well documented. We have plenty of examples¬† from much earlier in our history, but the Voynich manuscripts are somehow more interesting then the likes of Lucian of Samosata’s True History, at least in one particular aspect. They don’t tell the tale of some great mythology or legend, at least not one which is still known, and they appear to have been created by a single author, given how consistent the writing and art style is throughout the 200+ pages. To me, that would¬†make this veritable tome less “just a story” and more a body of work akin to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth; early proof of actual world-building, for no reason other than fun. That we may have found a 12th Century Tolkien or Martin* is far more exciting to me, personally, then any of the more grandiose theories.

With that said, it may not be that long before the Voynich manuscript finally gives up some secrets. In one of the more interesting applications of neural-network AI I’ve seen, fellows at the University of Alberta have recently been targeting the text of the manuscript. The big issue with decoding the text isn’t just the encryption; with computers we should be able to make some headway on that front. However, you can only crack an encryption system¬†if you have some idea of what the unencrypted message will look like. For that, we need to at least know the language which was initially encrypted. Of course, if the manuscript truly was created by a 12th Century Tolkien then it may have been written in a fictional tongue, making the whole exercise fruitless. Still, this is the very mystery that Greg Kondrak, with aforementioned AI in tow, may have managed to crack.

Having trained the AI on finding lingual patterns within text (not actually deriving meaning, but¬†recognising the¬†mathematical models that make up a language’s semantics and syntax) it was fed the Voynich manuscript. The result: Hebrew, with a high degree of certainty, appears to be the underlying language. That’s completely amazing to me. That a computer can teach itself enough about human linguistics that it can derive the language of a block of text¬†based on glyph placement and frequency is astonishing, but¬†that it can then use that same logic to¬†decode gibberish into the underlying root language is mind blowing.

Of course, the result does come with some major caveats, the first being that this is still a best guess. The AI has found a pattern, that is certain; a pattern which closely matches archaic Hebrew. But until we can decode the text and find that it makes sense in Hebrew it doesn’t get us much closer. Here, Kondrak has also made some headway, believing that the text might be using a simple alphagram system. An alphagram takes a word and reorders the letters into alphabetical order, a fairly simple form of pseudo-encryption. For example, the word “example” would become “aeelmpx”; not instantly recognisable but not the hardest riddle to solve either.

Based on that hunch, the AI has¬†run the text through a decryption algorithm and, again, seems to have hit pay dirt. A¬†large amount of the output words are recognisably Hebrew, with more than 80% matching known Hebrew text. Unfortunately, the AI is no good at translating ancient Hebrew, and the few sentences they have tried don’t make much sense, but it’s a promising start. Hopefully, with the help of scholars more versed in the ancient language, some light may finally be shed on just what, exactly, the Voynich manuscript is or was. And that would be pretty darn awesome!


* Or, indeed, an ancient dungeon master!

The Parisianer: A (Hopeful) Future of Paris

Fake futuristic magazine cover depicting a man manipulating a hologram display in front a tree which is partially moultingI have to admit, after a particularly awful experience well over a decade ago I have deliberately avoided travelling through the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. As a result, I had no idea about the on-going (and absolutely stunning) art installation/project taking place there. I still wouldn’t if it weren’t for Khoi Vinh.

It’s almost enough to make me want to lift my travel ban (almost). It’s certainly a project that is right up my street, producing beautiful illustrations depicting what the future of Paris (and, by extension, the world) might be. There’s a lot of fantastical science fiction on display, from aliens to integrated hydroponic schemes to space elevators and beyond.

The designs alone¬†are stunning but some of the ideas also really caught my imagination. Take for instance the¬†image above:¬†what’s going on here? Is the tree real but the environment completely micromanaged by the person shown? Is the tree fake, perhaps a hologram being manually ‘updated’ to show the changing of the seasons? Is he administering some kind of medication to turn back the tide of a¬†withering disease?¬†It’s a wonderfully simple image but the amount of possibilities it contains is fascinating. I’m quite tempted to buy my own print. Or possibly pick up the final, published work when it is released.

Creodonts & The Absurdity of Extinction

I just fell down a rather wonderful rabbit hole. My tale begins with a book review, written by Ross Barnett, of Sabretooth (Mauricio Anton). Apart from instantly¬†causing me to add the book¬†to my “to buy” list, the article also briefly lists the various mammalian clades which have exhibited sabre teeth in the past. Amongst this list were those I had expected, such as machairodonts (e.g. the famous¬†Smilodon) and the marsupial Thylacosmilus, but it also contained several I had never heard of. Most notably, it mentioned creodonts.

If I’ve ever come across creodonts before I wasn’t paying much attention because these creatures are fascinating. As a group they are an early success story in the mammalian radiation that occurred at the ending of the Cretaceous, yet despite their broad range and varied niche placement they are now utterly gone. Whilst they may look akin to modern hyenas, cats and even bears, the creodonts are not closely related (or basal) to the carnivorans. They are their own unique, and now absent, thing.

I’ve always found the notion of entire clade extinction somewhat absurd. I remember first reading about the K/T event that signalled the extinction of the dinosaurs and, even at an age written in single figures, feeling that there was something inherently wrong with the narrative. I get how large, extinction level events cause biodiversity to crash, but the idea that such a wildly successful and diverse group of creatures would all succumb seemed silly. I must admit, then, that as I’ve aged it has been with increasing smugness that I’ve watched the consensus switch from “dinosaurs are extinct” to “non-bird dinosaurs are extinct”. Frankly, at this point, I feel the old narrative should just be ignored. The K/T event knocked several wonderful animal groups on their respective heads, but the dinosaurs were not amongst them.

Still, though, the plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ammonites and myriad pterosaur groups were all wiped out, amongst many, many others. Whole families, even genera, do go extinct, often with frightening rapidity when everything is considered. That still feels odd, plus more than a little disappointing, and I can now add creodonts to the list of groups which I would love to have had the chance to meet.

But my journey didn’t stop there. Intrigued and fired up by the beautiful imagery of Sabretooth, I went hunting for palaeoart of creodonts. Unfortunately, I largely came back empty handed, but my wide Googling did lead me to discover a new blog to subscribe to: Into the Wonder. It’s a loose connection to the subject I was after, but it’s always fun to discover someone actively writing about developing fantasy lore and creature creation!

Plus, who knows? It took over a century for someone to realise the creodonts were not just another branch of Carnivora, which is a large enough group for some individuals to have only undergone cursory examination, so perhaps they actually aren’t all gone. Maybe, just possibly, one day in the future,¬†some slightly odd mustelid or squash-faced felid will turn out to be a creodont in hiding. Maybe that discovery will even answer questions about an unsolved riddle of folklore? It’s possible… though it’s probably also asking far too much…

The Marvel-ous Collection: A Beginning

I’m a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it felt a bit ridiculous¬†when I was given¬†Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2¬†for Christmas. To be clear, the gift wasn’t ridiculous; it’s a fantastic film and one I’ve been excited to rewatch since seeing it in the cinema. The ridiculous part was that this officially marked the start of my Marvel Bluray collection. That’s right, I might be a huge fan of the franchise and own a fairly sizeable solid-media movie collection, but I’m almost entirely absent the MCU!

I say almost, because in truth I do own both¬†Guardians of the Galaxy (now¬†Volume 1, I guess) and¬†Captain America: The Winter Soldier on DVD, but for a 17 film franchise¬†(at time of writing) that’s pretty meagre. Part of that reason is the Bluray dilemma: ultimately, I don’t care that much about the increased resolution for most films, but I definitely care about the extra features. As Bluray has become the¬†de facto release location for collector’s editions and special features, I was increasingly left behind, waiting for both an excuse to buy a Bluray player and then, later, for prices to drop back to the realms of sanity.

Luckily, 2017 saw both goals achieved. Whilst Blurays remain expensive (Marvel’s particularly so), they’re now at an acceptable premium above the respective DVD release, so with bonus featurettes, content and a better picture quality they¬†feel somehow more worthwhile. At the same time, Marvel finally released a collected set for both Phase One and Phase Two, something I find bizarre has taken half a decade. I mean, what other purpose does the marking of “phases” serve then to artificially create film sets? At any rate, the result was a sudden galvanisation to fill in the blanks and finally own¬†some of my favourite superhero films.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the contents of the collected sets left me a little cold. Yes, there are new bonus scenes, animatics and fun Agent Coulson introductions for each of the films, but they also lack a number of key special features from previous releases, especially the big documentaries. As a result, I’ve thrown in the towel! If Marvel/Disney can’t get their act together and release a definitive edition of the MCU then I’ll just create one myself.

The first hurdle was finding out what variations existed, what the actual differences were and then weighing up the pros and cons. Luckily, Reddit came to my aid (after Google summarily failed) with a raft of suggestions for comparison websites geared towards just this kind of task.

Since then, I’ve been slowly going through the films, one by one, narrowing down my options until I’ve found the exact version that most intrigues me. So far, the few I have settled on have been “out of print”, but luckily a robust second hand market appears to exist, keeping resell prices low. It’s slow going, but honestly I’m finding it quite fun. I’m also tracking my decisions and aim to release a full list, and break down of why I chose each film’s specific version, once I’m done.

For now, I figured it would be worth a quick round-up of the websites I’ve found most useful, so without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top five film hunting locations:

1. DVD Double Dip
Not the prettiest site, nor the most complete in terms of information, but what it does have is extremely easy to read, compare and review. Probably the best starting point I’ve found but take the accuracy with a pinch of salt.

2. DVD Compare
Very accurate, particularly when it comes to extra features, and great for comparing regional differences in films. Take particular note of the “Cuts” and “Overall” sections at the bottom of a search page¬†to see if the film is actively censored anywhere in the world. I wish you could compare films side-by-side, but still easily my favourite comparison site.

3. Blu-Ray.com
Probably the most complete database of film releases on this list but a bit of a pig to search accurately. There’s no way to easily compare film versions without opening multiple tabs, but you can filter by country directly on the search bar and the user reviews are solid, often clearing up any confusion over oddly phrased features.

4. Filmogs
Another very complete database without easy comparison methods. Easier to navigate than Blu-Ray.com but the search¬†is less intelligent (e.g. “Avengers”¬†fails to pull back any¬†collected sets). Again, useful for getting more information, plus acts as a competitively priced marketplace.

5. /r/DVDCollection
If all else fails, ask here and someone will probably either know the answer or own the film and be able to tell you. Really helpful bunch!

Of course, once you’ve narrowed down your options and decided which version is¬†just right, you still need to buy the darn thing. Obviously if you’re looking at buying¬†new then all the normal locations apply, but for second hand movies I’m having most success at the following:

1. Music Magpie – though be wary, several times I’ve spent a while looking at a film, come back later and found the price has shot up. Leave it a few days and it seems to drop back down again.
2. eBay
3. CEX
4. Amazon Marketplace

Happy hunting!

New Year, New Phone? Compare the Camera First

Currently, both myself and my partner are looking into replacing our mobile phones (her slightly more urgently). As a result, we’re both quite deep in the mire of tech reviews, contract comparisons and general research. For the most part, this has only gone to prove what I wrote about several weeks ago: the mobile phone market is stagnant. None of the current generation’s big, flashy marketing gimmicks are even close to being on my list of desirable features, whilst previous years’ genuinely useful innovations seem to have almost entirely disappeared (looking at you, waterproof casings!).

As a result, more so than at¬†any time I’ve previously delved deep into the mobile market, the minor differences and quality of parts are becoming increasingly important. For both of us, one of those now-standard features which can make or break a mobile is the camera, but trying to really tell the difference between two handsets ability is getting incredibly hard. Long gone are the days of pixel wars, where the MP rating was a broadly useable mark of quality. Now all phones have far too many pixels to ever be needed, meaning the calibre of the lens and processing software is much more important. Here, too, though it has become harder to tell pro from imposter, with even relatively basic mid-tier handsets boasting chips and glass from reputable sources like Zeiss and Samsung.

So the discovery of¬†GSM Arena and it’s phone comparison tools (all credit goes to my partner for the actual discovery, of course) is a real boon. It’s a brilliant website –¬†irritating banner ads aside –¬†which is surprisingly fast to load extremely high resolution, balanced images taken with any number of mainstream mobiles. Not just photos, but stills taken from video recordings are present as well, able to be synced between three phones for immediate comparison. It’s a fantastic tool for quickly and accurately comparing models, with some surprising results. Personally, my favouritism of Sony has seen¬†me eyeing up the XZ1 Compact, but having viewed the direct comparison between the Galaxy S8 I’m now a little put off (though oddly the video still seems much sharper). Most disappointing has been the Huawei Mate 10 Lite, which impressed me in store but at this detail is clearly lagging far behind.

Still, personal problems aside, it’s a cracking service and well worth shouting about!