Friday, 29 October 2010

The first wintry morning of the year

Frost bitten lawnWhilst preparing a small flask of tea in our kitchen on Monday morning it was bright enough for me to give the light switch a miss, it looked calm and warm outside. From that window I was lulled into a false sense of non-frozenness which meant that I wasn't expecting the winter scene or the clod blast of air that awaited me as I opened the front door. Never much of a morning person and out of the door a little earlier than usual, the sudden face-freeze was a wake up call that I hadn't anticipated. The bright white lawn and white peppered sky took me by surprise. Oddly though, not a bad surprise, it was quite a pleasant surprise, the crisp chilled air shocked my senses out of their sleep hangover like a splash of cold water and for once I felt quite awake. My brain shouted 'WINTER!' and as always on such occasions my hands reached into my pocket to grab my camera so I could share so here is our grass-weed-lawn with a dusting of frost:

I quickly walked to the bus stop where I noticed the Moon was still out and playing hide and seek with me, hiding behind and re-appearing from the fast moving clouds in an ocean-like sky.

Daylight Moon hiding behind clouds

On the bus everything was chilled to the touch. Using the rails to climb the stairs to the upper deck was what I imagine it would be like to use a zimmer frame outside in the Alps.
The bus was as cold as the air outside, cold enough to see your breath in the air and to feel the chill from the upholstered seat through your trousers and underwear.
I held my flask through the plastic bag to keep it upright due to its time outside it too was a lot colder than my hand to the point I actually thought it was wet and had leaked through the bag.

Heading into Belfast the scene out of the window of the bus was certainly that of winter. The Sun was low in the sky engulfing passengers in an orange aura, anything in shadow was still dusted with frost. The vents from large buildings had visible white plumes of water vapour rising from them, making the city look like it was still running on coal and wood burning fires like it had gone back in time or turned into a power station for the day.

I stepped off the bus and paid the usual visits to shops to pick up some food for lunch. The air-conditioning of the shops a nice relief even though I was wearing 2 layers and a coat.
Once supplies had been obtained I headed to work but took a few seconds out to stop by the River Lagan down by the Waterfront. There the sun was peeking out from behind a building, mildly glaring like a sunrise...

View of the River Lagan in the morning sun

... , reflecting off the shiny exterior of the Obel building back across the water...

Belfast Obel reflection on the R.Lagan

and planes having just taken off from Belfast City Airport were ploughing splashing through the white waves in the sky...

Plane in the morning sky

It was freezing but pretty. Rather than finally obtain some gloves and staying out in the crisp air longer taking pictures, I eventually had to focus on getting to work. Winter was certainly giving us a wake up call and a reminder that it'll be here soon enough. Time for me to re-find those hats, scarves and gloves that must be buried under several layers of household junk... brrrrrrrrrrrr.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Belfast Trade Union Rally against public service cuts

Trade Union Rally Belfast October 23rd 2010 03On Saturday Norngirl and I gathered in the crowd before a mobile stage set up in front of Belfast City Hall. The rain was pouring down soaking anyone without an umbrella but with a firm statement to make, thousands had turned out to tell our Finance Minister and the current coalition government exactly what the trade unions and like minded people think of their solution to the country's financial problems. Flags, banners, music and speeches were seen in front of a wet but determined crowd.

I'd never been to a trade union rally before - mainly due to the fact I'm not a member of a trade union or even work in a trade that has a trade union but in this day and age a bit of solidarity is much needed. Norngirl is a member of a union but I think we would have gone along anyway. We wanted to show our support in opposing the austerity measures in public spending to be inflicted on this part of the world and also to try and get some of the politicians in Northern Ireland (the ones who think they are above being held accountable for their actions just because there are hard choices to be made) to think twice... like Finance Minister Sammy Wilson who decided to tell everyone before hand that the protest was "a waste of time".

As reported by the BBC and was said quite eloquently at the rally by ICTU Assistant General Secretary Peter Bunting:

"What annoys Sammy Wilson most is you being here today. [...] Sammy wants us to sit down, shut up and take our medicine - like good patients for his prescription of austerity and privatisation."

Trade Union Rally Belfast October 23rd 2010 04

Thankfully not all of his colleagues agreed and the social Development Minister and Education Minister attended the event. Maybe he should listen to people first and then make his mind up rather than make his mind up and complain about people's criticism? You would think he would have learnt from his highly controversial spell as Environment minister and look how that turned out for him. To be hoped he's better with maths than science but anyway, back on topic.

For me, the saddest thing is when the government's only plan is to ask the every day hard working person to pay more than their fair share to fix a problem most helped prevent rather than cause. A plan that was dreamt up by the same political party who encouraged the philosophy and ethos which resulted in the need to bail the banks out in the first place. Yet the way the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition have chosen to proceed just places even more trust and control to the very same organisations that have been shown by their failings to be inept, greedy and untrustworthy. So politically the cuts are Conservative in nature - using the opportunity to pass more control of government to business, to pass even more of what I would see as the government's responsibility on to big business in the hope they will be able to do a better job.

Trade Union Rally Belfast October 23rd 2010
I mean why should our government worry about looking after the basic needs of society and its future health and mobility?

David Cameron wants us to look after that aspect of society for free as a part of his 'Big Society', and whilst we'll all be happily doing our bit (twice over) to get the country out of a mess, is he going to put pressure on private businesses to give people more money or time off to help us achieve his public aim? I doubt it very much. I rather predict that if our government didn't bend over to their friends in big business, their friends wouldn't be so friendly and would take their bat and balls away to play with another country and leave us even worse off. Some would say that's 'market forces' other might find blackmail more appropriate.

So the plan is to let big business have more control so they'll stay and even more will want a slice and of course they will. They're operating to make a profit, and so they should if that is what the business is set up to do, but how many investors will hang around when the going gets tough since many are even finding ways around paying tax when the going is good? Unlike our Finance Minister's attitude to those trying to make their voice heard, maybe he, along with MPs on a national scale (especially those who have the final say in Westminster), should be putting up a little bit more of a fight. Maybe standing up for those who elected them when it comes to clawing back the bailout deficit? Is it unreasonable to expect government to first demand a proportionate amount from those who gambled and lost causing the problem? Especially from the likes of the financial sector, an industry where the highest level of incompetence is rewarded by pay-offs. Payouts only outshone by the extremely disproportionate bonuses awarded for even the smallest success.

Yet instead what do we have coming? Well Corporation tax with this government is expected to be dropped to 24p per £1 of profit for large businesses. To put that in perspective it will be the lowest corporation tax of all the G20 countries and the lowest of any large western economy including the USA!

It is also the lowest rate this country will have ever had and a reduction of a huge 9% from 1997. In that time we have gone from boom to bust and instead of asking the businesses who have profited in this time from operating in this country to help bring back their own good times the majority of that bad debt is passed onto the lowest denominator... the individual who isn't positioned to argue back.

Trade Union Rally Belfast October 23rd 2010 01I honestly do realise that commerce, trade, the financial markets and interactions between government, the public taxpayer, other stakeholders and the business world are a little more complicated than the simplistic views I'm waffling on about here and there are safeguards (at some levels) in place, but sometimes the set up just becomes a huge joke which might be legal but it isn't right and it winds me up.

I'm sure I'm not alone in being very worried about the attitude of putting even more faith in non-democratically elected hands in regards to the welfare of the state. The current record of private enterprise holding back from making poor choices for short term gain is not good. Things might get better but then, if and when it all goes wrong again, where do we end up? After a few such cycles and a few currency wars, when do we either declare the country bankrupt or have the package we call the UK bought out like a football club with the cost of the debt of buying us secured against the country and further strip the country of its assets?

Inept government choices and greed of the financial world apart, when are the chummy pals in higher government in the UK going to earn their keep? Even our First Minister and Deputy First Minister are trying to get the government to see some sense in relation to Northern Ireland's funding.

It is understandable that people stand up for their livelihoods and that today means saying "no" to non-democratically elected individuals and organisations getting away with not paying their fair share. To call for a change in philosophy when it comes to finding a better way rather than taking the easiest way out of the situation and to call for better governance of what we do have.

What sort of life are we setting up for those future generations who aren't born into a privileged background? If we only have a puppet government which is only there to facilitate economic forces, at what point does the power of democracy shrink to the point where we're not working to live, we're living to work, or have I just got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the average citizens role in life? I thought freedom was somewhere in that list of human rights.

Trade Union Rally Belfast October 23rd 2010 05
The job losses in Northern Ireland have been generally reported in the local press at a figure of around 30,000 in the public sector. That doesn't include the knock on effect this will have on the private sector. Unions such as UNISON and NIPSA are trying to protect the public sector. That is, trying to protect jobs and prevent the government detrimentally affecting the most vulnerable in society. They will undoubtedly oppose cuts which impact worst on front-line services in anyway possible. In the likes of myself there is support from those working outside the public sector even if we can't actually do anything but add volume to their voice. I may not agree with every last point I heard at the rally but compared to what I hear from Westminster and from our own Finance Minister here in Northern Ireland, it's a point of view with reason and with people rather than profit at heart. That is admirable in my book and it was well worth getting a soaking for.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Gaming at Catalyst Arts, Belfast Festival 2010

Catalyst Arts Door and Gaming Poster
Norngirl pressed the bell. Having never been here before (let alone down the street we were on) we thought we had maybe arrived at a time when the place was closed. We knew it was the right place though as there was a big poster on the door. Puzzled, we were starting to doubt ourselves a little but then at the last moment the door opened and a friendly, smiling lady led us up a few flights of stairs into an art galley. The main attraction wasn't any regular art though, this was the world of Gaming, to be more specific - Catalyst Arts Gaming, an event put on by the organisation for the Belfast Festival.

So there we were on a rainy Saturday being introduced to an art gallery full of games we could play. There were retro video games and classic board games. On our left, Giant Draughts (checkers), Chess, Scrabble and other games. To our right several games consoles (a Sega Megadrive 16bit, N64, Dreamcast, PS1, PS2 and Gamecube) set up on individual TVs. Behind them a Foosball table and on the walls; game posters and game themed paintings.

The place was quite quiet, just a couple of other people around so we pretty much had a full choice of what to do. Our first choice was the Foosball table. Table football/foosball or whatever you want to call it can get quite frantic and as soon as we had started we were both struggling to keep one hand on the goalie and like crazed organists waiving our other hand back and fourth between the remaining handles. We tried our best to keep that little ball heading away from our goal but it was a futile endeavour. Lucky for me though I finished victorious, muwhahahaha.

Once our game was at it's end we moved on to the video games. On the Megadrive is was a game of 2 player Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I have to explain at this point my wife Norngirl has completed Sonic on the Sega Game Gear several times so before the excuses continue - Yes I lost.

In my defence I'm a Nintendo child having played on my cousins as a kid from an early age then eventually I was lucky enough to get a Nintendo Entertainment System as a joint birthday and Christmas present when I was about 8. After that my next console came when I saved up my pocket money for a few months and with Birthday money to top it up I was able to buy myself a 2nd hand SNES - that was about 1997 when they were starting to wind down making games for it. I love the SNES, it's my favourite console and ever since that day I've collected 2nd hand games for all Nintendo Consoles, so I am indeed a Nintendo nerd and totally addicted. Sadly, I only ever played Sega at friends houses so never found my way around the 3 main buttons of a mega-drive controller, an odd number of buttons in a line on a control pad just doesn't seem right to my fingers. At one point as Knuckles was already checking into an overnight hotel recuperating for the challenges of the next level, I had Sonic stuck in some pinball purgatory and ended up timing out to his golden ring dropping death.

Moving on and sadly Goldeneye on the N64 wasn't up and running at the time and I didn't want to start messing with it or know if it was the console or the cart or the TV but at any rate I didn't have my tools with me if the console or cart needed a clean (If you collect things that are old and dirty you get used to this). So we moved onto the other consoles.

I headed for Tekken 2 on the PS1 whilst Norngirl tried Space Invaders on the PS2. We tried the other games, one was a Warner Bros game, maybe Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or on something on the Gamecube. The other a game on the Dreamcast that I'd never seen before, some shoot-em-up at any rate.

After losing our numerous lives in many amusing ways, from being popped by orbs of energy to falling into the abyss that always seems to be a never ending pit at the bottom of a screen, we headed to the oversized floor draughts (Checkers) and had a quick game. I ended up winning though a little unfairly given Norngirl wasn't too clued up about the rules before we began to play. Understandable too given we don't own a board and she hadn't played for a longer time than many of the consoles in the room had been in existence.

Winning or losing we had a good time and were very glad we went along. As a display I would have loved a SNES or a NES there, there was oddly a SNES game on the table so maybe they have one? I dunno. but whichever it was still pretty awesome to have such a venue set up to play games. The lady who had shown us up on the way in kindly gave us a quick overview of the Art Gallery and explained that normally it is contemporary art on the walls and they planning on a move down to a lower floor which will undoubtedly given the amount of stairs improve access.

I didn't know this at the time as we only heard about this free event through word of mouth but it turns out that Catalyst Arts have been providing a cultural outlet in the city for 16 years and per their website they are a non-profit, members-based organisation, good stuff.

If you might be interested in heading along to play some games, do head down to the 2nd floor of 5 College Court Tuesday to Saturday between 11am-5pm next week (it finishes on the 30th October) and press the buzzer if the door isn't open. Good times and more buttons await those who do :)

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Jesus and Satan start their blogs. Twist on a classic.

Jesus and Satan bump into one another in the afterlife and get talking about current trends on Earth. After debating the pro's and cons of social media they stumble into an an argument as to who would make the better blogger.

Jesus and Satan silhouette

This goes on for quite some time until they come to an agreement to hold a contest on Earth with God as judge. Eager to get started and with an plethora of posts to pre-scedule from an eternity of existence they buy two identical servers, two identical laptops, sign up to the same service provider and get to work.

Their work goes on for the best part of a month. The Devil prepares an incredible 666 posts a day but Jesus manages to keep pace typing just 2 text posts and 5 photo posts, somehow this made 5000 posts in total every 4 days!

God could see both were neck and neck in quantity and quality of content approaching the end of the month. The contest was almost at it's end and they were so close to clicking the publish button they could feel the souls swarming to subscribe... but then suddenly, with no warning, they both recieved the blue screen of death! It was so close to the end that in the very next moment God announced that the contest was over.

God being merciful decided to bring the unrepairable laptops back to life but had to reformat the hard drive to do so. He then asked Satan to show his work. Fuelled with 'Blue screen of death' rage, Satan tries to connect to the server to pull back his 20,000 posts but it won't ping. He wailed: “God, I have nothing, the puny server has been compromised, not even the guts of a post, it's all gone.”

“That is unfortunate,” says God and then he turns and asks ”do you have anything Jesus?".

Jesus knowing the server has gone to binary heaven plugs in a dongle, makes a few clicks and presses a few keys, the internet signal bar turns green, he connects to his remote backup service and the greatest blog post that the world has ever known springs into view.

Satan cannot believe what he is seeing. Ravaged with fury he demands to know what just happened. "I lost it all, Jesus should have lost it all too".

Knowing God would not cheat him but also knowing he would not lie to him, he puts the question to his creator.

"How did he do it?”

God LOLs loudly, “Don't you know… Jesus saves.”

And now you know why Jesus has more followers.

(Sorry, I couldn't help myself!)

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Tropical Ravine and revisiting the Ulster Museum.

Ulster Museum FrontageOn Saturday we had a free afternoon so we made the most of it and headed on down to the Tropical Ravine in Belfast's Botanic Gardens and paid another visit to the Ulster Museum now that Sean Scully's 'art' has been removed from the walls after our previous visit to the Ulster Museum and criticism of Scully's work. We were not the only ones taking in the Museum: Nelson McCausland, the Northern Irish Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure was also viewing the works on show.

We began singing our way out of our rented house with a rendition of Spandau Ballet's “True” (best not to ask) and made our way to the bus stop, a bus wasn't far off and once in town we walked from the City Hall up past Queens University to Botanic Gardens.

It was around 2.30 so we quickly got a bite to eat in the Ulster Museum café. If anything the prices have gone up - a solid meal from the café menu today will now set you back £7.50 (approx $12) but I went with the Mushroom Soup and bread at £3.50 ($5.60) which was nice but a little too salty for my taste. Can't complain too much though - entrance to the museum is free which has for almost the last decade been one of the best things about heading to the UK.

Once fed, we headed to the Tropical Ravine in the Botanic Gardens. I'd never been in it and was expecting something like the Roundhay Park's Tropical World in Leeds. It was a little like it though a lot smaller and only has Koy Carp and Plants. The plants as you'd expect from a Tropical Ravine are tropical species and although it's only a rectangular walk on a raised platform in the canopy of the plants, for free its well worth a quick walk around. Here are a couple of photos of the flora on show today:

A tropical Plant

Tropical Plant

From our tropical wander, we made our way into the Ulster Museum, gave a small donation then made the best decision we've ever made in a museum - we got the lift to the top and went somewhat backwards through the exhibits and galleries. This wasn't just a mad idea born on the spur of the moment, this was using gravity to our advantage and making looking around the trip that little more enjoyable as walking down 5 flights of exhibits is a lot less demanding than walking up 5 flights of exhibits.

So from the top down, we were this time starting off in the section of the museum which spoiled our last trip - the Art Galleries. This time however, several huge rooms of simplistic repetition had been replaced by several galleries of diverse artworks. A brilliant change of scene which provided not only painted art but also sculptured small objects to enjoy.

The art on display was an eclectic mix. The first thing we came across was a mix of glasswares and crockery. Some was a bit random but others like a fish-like vase of brown and blue were quite exquisite. Following this we created our own little art works in the kids Art Interactive Area where we created some thumb print creations. Mine was a woodlouse on its back. In the next rooms were framed pieces ranging from traditional oil paints of local scenes to pencil drawn portraits, from colourful fantasy art to framed photographs. This room led onto a room of fashion featuring dresses, shoes, bags and jewellery from some famous names.

The rest of the Art Gallery section was populated with traditional art works largely from the 18th and 19th century. This part of the gallery was where we happened to come across Nelson McCausland and I presume his wife. For those who don't know who Nelson McCausland is, he is a DUP politician who is a Minister in the Northern Irish Assembly. Since we were at the recording of a BBC TV debate last year where I described he and his fellow politicians' performances as only going so far as to “re-enforce my doubt in the usefulness of a political system dominated by polarised viewpoints”, since then he has become famous for his request for this very same Museum to display creationist and anti-evolutionary material. On that subject I have to say I pretty much agree with the article by Malachi O'Doherty on the Belfast telegraph website basically saying, in other words, that if he wants to be the fundamentalist who put unsubstantiated fairy tales into our national museum, let him. Putting his unsubstantiated views under scrutiny will only reinforce the fact that those ideas are only one of an infinite number of science fiction ideas, a genre he should maybe read more of? He is also well known for his controversial views on seemingly pretty much anything beginning with GA... such as Gays and GAA. You may be able to tell, I'm not a fan of Mr McCausland.

Back in the room and there he was, spending a little time at the paintings in the largest gallery, looking at the fine art from scenes of religious iconography to a female nude, yes a female nude, not a male nude. There was a male nude in the previous gallery but we don't know if he took time to appreciated that work of art or not. I just want to make sure I don't give the impression he may have admired the male form at any point because obviously I wouldn't want to infringe on his point of view.

Thankfully for us, we only had to share the room for a few minutes with the Minister who wants the museum to “reflect the views of all the people in Northern Ireland”. Due to his comments I do wonder when the 'Jedward are God', 'an outline to the Jedi belief system' and 'Satan is the head of the Church' exhibitions are opening alongside the proposed creationism displays.

Oddly his presence wasn't infringing on our enjoyment of the art. Being in the same room as him instead added something. Pointing out the humour in the works to one another subtly with him in ear shot made it a fun challenge. We were the naughty school children at the back of the class.

Leaving the guy to his afternoon, we took in a slightly surreal media exhibit created by Turner Prize finalist Willie Doherty called Ghost Story. It featured a path, a few bushes, a motorway underpass, an eye and a guy who needs to either get over it or take some Prozac but at least it made more sense than the Sean Scully video that was shown in the room before.

AzuriteThe rest of the museum was pretty much identical to before and I once again enjoyed the geological section. This time I took a fancy to Azurite, blueness! There is a nice example in the dark area lit up and sparking in all its blue finery but there is also an Irish sample in one of the draws with the fossils and other geological period rocks and minerals. Do open those draws up if you get chance, they're internally lit but no one ever seems to touch them even though they are there to be looked at.

Though the museum was on its countdown to closing, we managed to quickly call into the History Interactive Area and pencil rubbed a tracing of our names in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs:

Simon in hieroglyphs
Simon in hieroglyphs

We made it out of the door before the doors shut and made our way home via crunching through some crisp Autumn leaves and sampling a Vanilla Rooibos.

The Ulster Museum is certainly a great place to visit and whilst there it's worth calling into the Tropical Ravine. As far as something free to do in Belfast goes you can't go too far wrong.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Making a meal of it

I didn't buy in enough fresh food and the only meat in the house needed to be defrosted. There was only one thing for it - a cupboard special. The ingredients: Rice (Water and Chilli Extra Vigin Olive Oil), Chickpeas, Tinned Mackerel in Tomato Sauce and a jar of generic supermarket Rogan Josh curry sauce.

First up I put the water onto boil for 5 minutes, once bubbling added the Basmati Rice with some of the Chilli Olive Oil stirred, turned down to a low heat and set the oven timer for 5 minutes.

Pan of rice on the boil

With the timer beeping at me I came back to it. It was time to open the tins, the electric tin opener made light work of the pre soaked Chickpeas tin. It was then time to lift the ring-pull on the top of the Scottish Mackerel in Tomato Sauce tin and peel back.

Ring-pull lifted... pulled back, the ring-pull started to break the seal of the tin, the ring-pull came back with my arm.

Tin of Mackerel Opening fail

Ah pants. Tinned Mackerel fail.

Not deterred by this 'crazy man vs can' event ending in an away win to the can, I begun the rematch immediately. The electric tin opener didn't work, it got stuck after about 2cm due to the groove in the can. No hand held tin opener to be found due to the old one going rusty and never working anyway due to its mega blunt cheapness I reverted back to the stone age. Sadly all the rolling pin actually did was spurt tomato sauce through the little holes I'd managed to inflict on the tin and splat me and the kitchen surfaces with fishy smelling oily fluids.

Turns out a standard fork as a ring-pull replacement is the efficient way to get into the nom'y goodness inside of container of this nature.

Tin of Mackerel Opening Success


The Mackerel went in the pan with a little more Chilli Olive Oil followed by the Chickpeas and sauce and at that point it was starting to look like an actual meal. Well an actual meal that looks a little like sick. Saying that it's probably looking more appetising in the pan than the last meal I blogged about.

Cooking a curry

10 minutes later... Voilà! Mackerel and Chickpea Curry with Basmati Rice. I think it turned out looking OK and tasting pretty nice in the end. No bones or metal shards to be found... well, yet. Shame I didn't have a Naan Bread handy.

Mackerel and Chickpea Curry Close up

Mackerel and Chickpea Curr

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Big 100, Blog Life ain't so Bad!

Welcome to a bit of landmark for my blog, the 100th post! It has been 1 year, 8 months and 6 days since this all began so I'm going to take this post as time to reflect and recap on blogging and life in that time.

In that very first post I wrote about the occasion years earlier when I was leaning against the side of the plane and looking out of the window at the scenery below. Last Sunday on our way home from our weekend in Blackpool I finally had the after image from the before and after 'spot the difference' scenes. On that first flight I was heading to Northern Ireland for the first time and I was sat alone pondering life and love. This time, with Blackpool and the Fylde coast disappearing into the darkness below, the scene was different. My wife at my side and my sister-in-law and friends nearby laughing and joking, the risk I took that first flight was the biggest leap into the unknown of my life and for certain the one I would never change.

Blackpool and the Flyde coast at night

So although I blog and end up complaining about a lot about things in the local and wider world, in my own deeply personal and largely non-blogged world, the ride of life is firmly on the tracks, zooming along with the fervour of time.

That ride has been quite eventful in the period I've been blogging and blogging itself has now become a part of my ride which is slightly odd but odd in a good way. I hadn't anticipated that writing my blog would take up so much of my time. Due to its almost therapeutic release, for me it is a nice problem to have to balance but nevertheless I have found that blogging is a bit of a paradox. Blogging to me is all about recording and portraying experience but the more you do, the more experiences you have to blog about and the less time you have to blog so the less you get to blog and in turn to blog it all would impact on time used to type. With the quieter times, you get more time to blog about what has happened but the fewer experiences you have to blog about.

I have one regret with blogging so far and that is not having the time to give as much as I'd hoped. I have posts written but not typed about my wedding and honeymoon and several fun events slipped under the radar. One day in the not-so-distant future I still hope to catch up with at least the major things.

So that has become my main dilemma with blogging. The reasons I started to blog are the same as they were from that original post however throwing yourself into the mix brings a dedication of time I wasn't anticipating, but you know what, I think it's worth it.

In that 1 year, 8 months and 6 days, which translates to roughly 88 weeks, an awful lot has happened and due to blogging it, I have a half decent record of it. Not only that but through reading other blogs and researching my own point of view, I have learned a lot and reassessed a lot from creating my content.

The extra plus I have found (other than slowly learning to spell and structure a sentence!) is that there are some really great and genuine bloggers that I mightn't have come into contact with if it wasn't writing my own blog. I've been able to see life close to home and far away from a perspective different to my own but in ways I can relate to. A lot of bloggers go for page clicks and ads but some, such as these few examples (in no particular order) are a some of my favourite blogs and where I believe blogging is really at its best:

Sadly, as well as the great personal and interest bloggers, in what can be a weird and wonderful blogosphere there are an awful lot of shallow and materialistic bloggers who will do anything for a page view, usually those who don't create all of their own content or don't reference their source which a little pet peeve of mine I'm afraid to say.  The culture I've come across in the world of blogging is slightly different to other online communities I've had the privilege to being a part of. It's maybe because everyone operates from a different page rather than all coming together on one but there seems a larger emphasis on being seen and getting your voice heard, especially when it comes to people who want to be authors or to sell their product. Finding people genuinely interested in what you are saying is a rare thing as there largely is no other connection and I find that kind of sad. Sad because although a blog can be even more personal and expressive than a lot of other online environments, the one-to-many nature of it seems to leave a gap of sincerity.

On the plus side though, blogging gives you freedoms of speech unparalleled and the ability to reach audiences to whom you wouldn't ordinarily even have contemplated passing on your views. I guess that can be a bad thing as well as a good thing. One instance I had of reaching someone I didn't expect came when my blog post about Toy Story 3D and the cinema in question out-ranked that organisation's Google search result at the time. I received a comment from the General Manager offering me tickets to another show and perhaps to blog about it. I turned down the offer as I am a not-for-profit sort of guy and so is my blog. What did surprise me though was the fact that my ramblings led to someone with the ability to influence our future experiences to go so far as to act on them in their own way gives an indication that blogging has the ability to give an individual a voice otherwise muted in the big giant ball of spam out there. Hrmm, if only the folks at Stormont would take so much notice and offer a second election (or more) until we get someone with common sense in a seat of power!

Other than that, another surprising but fun moment was receiving a few mentions on the Belfast Telegraph site thanks to Blogger and Columnist Geoff McGimpsey whose blog is Boballs (but slightly mothballed at the moment) and whose column is largely dedicated to the local bloggers here in Northern Ireland.

It's great that there are some people like Geoff and the Belfast Telegraph out there who are putting a lot into promoting the blogosphere and also great that this area of the world, with all it's issues and problems, has an active online presence led in voice largely through much more dedicated bloggers and blog sites such as Alan in Belfast and the tangled web of politics debated at Sluggerotoole.

So on this, my 100th post, I'd just like to say that blogging, like taking that first flight to N.I many years ago, has been very much a good thing for me up to this point at least. Blogging has intertwined itself as a part of my life, it's encouraged me to involve myself more in what's going on around me, to engage further my interest in photography and to savour the special moments in life that little bit more as typing it out again really does almost mean reliving it. It has very much been worth it so my advice would be: if you don't blog or have never blogged, why not give it a try?

Friday, 8 October 2010

A Weekend in Blackpool and the Cow of Shame

Raining Blackpool Tower
In Blackpool for the weekend? Is it throwing it down and have your plans to go to Stanley Park, the Zoo and to bury each other on the beach been deflated quicker than an inflatable doll straying into Iranian waters? Well this is a story of how we had a good time in Blackpool, in questionable weather, helped by the Cow of Shame.

It began on a rainy Friday morning as we woke up far too early, got dressed in pre-selected clothes and prepared to exit the door of the house. The taxi had arrived early and was ready to meander its way to Belfast City Airport with us in the back. Completely ready, and with a minute to spare, it was time to go. We were eager to get going and for once, just once, I wasn't in a mad rush as I went to put my bag on my back.

*insert panic*

On the plus side, half of my bag did stay attached by its straps to my back. Sadly, for my weekend luggage needs, the other half of the bag hit the floor. The zip holding it together had split and a frantic few minutes followed which, in retrospect, was very maybe a little too heavy in unintentional innuendo: phrases like "pull it like this" and "'you hold that end and tug it hard... no, harder!" We gave up.

There was only one bag of correct size and in easy reach to accommodate my garments and gadgets for the trip. That bag was Norngirl's small spare case (which she wasn't using as she'd used my spare case!) and from the walk to the taxi from the front door this became known as the "Cow of Shame":

Cow of Shame

Cow of shame in hand, we arrived at the automated check in and got our boarding passes.  We passed through to security and the cow of shame was living up to its new-found reputation, as I had to carry it into a small room to be swabbed and analysed. Once released out into the pastures again, we had made it to the café and, with cup of tea in hand, Norngirl found the weather forecast for us. It wasn't looking good. Our itinerary was about to be washed away. Compared to a previous visit when the new changes were still being made, I can vouch that the airport is running a lot smoother and is more comfortable than when it wasn't quite finished. The flight to Manchester and train ride sailed by and we found ourselves unloading our bags at the Bed and Breakfast and heading into town.

First things first and food and caffeine was on the menu. For me on the biggest island on the UK that means a Gregg's pasty and Bavarian slice - my guilty pleasure from my student days. Starbucks was the next port of call, not somewhere I really enjoy as I don't like the smell or taste of coffee but in our case 4 of our 5 strong party of 20 some-things want to head there for the Central Perk-like feel and drinks. In Starbucks we chose to head to the tourist information where we would draw up new plans.

The Blackpool tourist information centre is located by the town hall, up the street that leads on to the entrance of the North Pier. In there we were met by lots of leaflets and signs for local shows and attractions. The obvious attractions to partake of whilst it was wet included the tower, which we didn't know was £7 excluding the circus for the Friday (and jumped to £17 for an adult including the circus by Sunday!), so we ruled that out at the time for being too expensive for us, as we believed it to be around £14. The next options were to head to the Sea Life Centre, the Waxworks Museum, or to spend some time shopping/around the arcades and cafés on the piers. For that afternoon we chose to take up the offer in the Tourist Information place to buy Blackpool Sea Life Centre tickets for a little cheaper, though in retrospect had we known we were heading to it we would have bought them online where its cheaper still.

After a quick walk down the front in the rain, we made our way down to the Sea Life Centre. The sky and sea that we could glimpse over the construction works on the promenade merged into one big grey band, so it was nice to step into the bright entrance with a huge aquarium full of all kinds of tropical fish.

In the Centre, as you can imagine, there are lots of lifeforms that dwell in water. Lifeforms from around the globe in some funky tanks. I keep goldfish at home - well, just 1 goldfish (Dean) at the moment, for as you might have read on my twitter updates Sam is now sadly swimming in the 'seafterlife' - but because I realise how tricky it can be maintaining a simple tank, not even on public display, I'm always amazed by the tanks in Sea Life Centres and other aquariums. I love the shoreline tank with the buoy that acts as a wave machine and the big shark tank that you can walk through, watching the sharks glide over your head. The creatures of the deep are hypnotic in their movement and almost otherworldly at times and I really enjoyed my visit this time, as I always did when we went there when I was younger.

Sea life I learned quite a few facts about fish and, unlike when I was a child, in body as well as mind, I'll probably remember it this time rather than forgetting what I heard by the time I saw the Pyrite (fools gold) in the gift shop. Actually, I say "fish", but watching an episode of QI later, it was said that most fish aren't that closely related to each other and so aren't really "fish" per say, so I should probably say I learned some new facts about sea life. Facts like the reason as to why Rays perform their inquisitive 'Oh Hai' waving is because the creature is intrigued and smelling the air. They pick up on the smells such as perfume or body odour of the people at the side of the tank.

Once we'd had enough underwater adventure we headed back to the B&B to prepare to head out. We were greeted by a surprise appearance from Norngirl's aunty who was staying with her fiancé in the same B&B. The clouds had stopped leaking and we walked to the Frankie and Bennys restaurant on Rigby Road, located a stone's throw from Bloomfield Road (home of Blackpool Football Club), which was looking a lot smarter than last time I was down that way about 10 years ago. The food was good but I couldn't eat it all.

Full up, we then wandered down to outside the main entrance of the Pleasure Beach, where there was a random Vegas-style fountain called 'Venus Reborn', which it turns out was opened just over 2 years ago by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Venus Reborn Fountain Blackpool

Venus Reborn Fountain Blackpool

It was a nice build-up to the rest of the lights. We didn't bother heading all the way down to Star Gate and, as we were shattered from the early morning start, we flung ourselves on a tram to Bispham and viewed the golden mile from the tramlines, occasionally being blinded by the famous boat and train illumination trams.

Blackpool Tram Back to the Future 3

Blackpool Illuminations Egyptian Mummy

Blackpool Illuminations bearAt Bispham tram station we made use of the toilets before walking back down past the big illuminations, many of which were the same as those I used to be wowed by the best part of 2 decades ago. The Road Safety Bears were still there but, due to recent soft-toys-in-fridge adverts, seemed rather more sinister... would you join their party?

My old favourite, the Mummy, was still there, as were the hickory-dickory-dock clock, Noddy, Alice in Wonderland scenes, the motorcycle jumper and the 4 seasons. In amongst some oldies though were several newer ones I'd not seen before such as the pirates, Haunted Blackpool, a giant Robbie Williams video advert, a temple and best of all a Tardis and Dalek.

Blackpool Illuminations Winter

Blackpool Illuminations Dr Who Tardis

With tired feet and eyes, we got another tram back to the B&B, ready to sleep off our fatigue ready for the Pleasure Beach on Saturday.

Seagulls and Central PierThankfully the rain held off on Saturday and in the morning we even had the joy of walking the prom from Central Pier to the Pleasure Beach in glorious sunshine.

As we did I called my dad to say hi. There was a huge queue to collect the wristbands that we'd bought online but when we arrived we had entered through the Casino building and were directed to a much shorter queue at the ticket office to the Globe. Within minutes we were excitedly passing through security gates and loitering in the queues for the rides.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach has changed a little since last I was there.  It's been a fair few years but then the log flume and american football style dodgems were still there, whereas now in their respective places are fountains and the rollercoaster Infusion. The Rollercoaster was also out of action, possibly due to the construction of Nickelodeon Land. The Turtlechase and Whip have also gone, which is quite a shame, especially the whip which was a really fun ride. But never fear: it turns out that the Whip and some other older rides from the Pleasure Beach, as well as rides from the now-closed Morecambe's Frontierland and Pleasureland Southport, have been donated to somewhere I have to go someday, if and when it reopens... Margate Dreamland.

Back on track though and we were having a great time, being flung, spun, rolled, soaked and dried on as many rides in the park as we had time to queue for. As expected there were some quite full queues which meant a half hour wait for some of the most popular rides but that probably wasn't helped by the fact a few rides like the Pepsi Max Big One were out of action for the day due to repairs.

Valhalla was as awesome and wet as ever.  I still miss the big electricity bolt part that was part of the ride when it first opened, but apart from that the rest of the effects are largely still there, and are as fun as they were on the first ride. In order to stay partially dry the need to buy a waterproof poncho before boarding is almost a must, but that's part of the brilliant fun of that ride: everyone gets a soaking and everyone is equally thrown into the experience, no matter where you sit. As for the other rides, I really liked Infusion, which I went on for the first time, as I never got to Southport where it was known as the Traumatizer.

Infusion Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Big Dipper and InfusionI had also forgotten how much fun the Big Dipper was; it might be very old but the ride it gives never gets old.  I'd describe it as being as close to sledging on wheels as you can get. The Ice Blast, formerly the Playstation was, as ever, too short for the wait but a good starter.  I remember when we used to only ever go on that ride to get a peek over the construction barriers at the construction of Valhalla, which at the time was known as Project 2000. Some rides are timeless and the Derby Racer put a smile on our faces, as did the River Caves.

Whilst we were having a whale of a time, my dad called me.  His false pretence was shockingly bad but he then revealed that, since I'd spoken to him earlier, he'd taken a long drive from Yorkshire, so as we passed by the entrance on the monorail, we waved with glee. Off the ride we went to say a proper hello and got our hands stamped on the way out so we could come back in. We caught up for a few minutes but he had to be on his way to get home again and to beat the parking meter. Before he had chance to run away, I gave him a present, which was the photo I'd bought on the Big Dipper of me grinning at the camera with two thumbs up in the air in the cheesiest pose ever.  It just seemed so wrong but so right in the context, given I was also in the very back seat of the back carriage... incidentally the best place to be!

Random family gathering over, we headed back for more fun and frolics, which ended with a ride on Bling, a ride which proved a good way to end another fun theme park experience.  For those who read my blog often, you'll be happy to hear there were no cameraphobic, overzealous security guards whatsoever; this was a photo-friendly park where we didn't meet one grumpy member of staff, even when Valhalla needed a reboot. Kudos to the peeps at BPB - give them a raise!

Blackpool town centre lightsHappy but shattered, and with damp feet, we flumped into a taxi. In the B&B it was a shoe change or, for those unprepared, a pointing-the-hair-dryer-at-the-shoes moment. Hoping to see a show we were staying close to the North Shore that evening and the reputation of the town being taken over at night by Stag and Hen parties is not over-hyped.  It can be a bit much when people are unable to stand properly at 7.30pm but we made our way through the crowds to somewhere that served food. The town at night looks smart though, as it seems a fair bit of money has been thrown at trying to make the town centre a little more friendly, with these large metal sculpted lights and projector stands.

The choice of eatery ended up being a bit of a mistake, as we went to generic branch of a generic cheap bar which serves food on a Saturday night. The décor was nice but unfortunately there was no tea or coffee available; then, once ordered, it was found that one of the meals was out of stock; then two of us got our food but the other two meals didn't arrive until we'd finished ours (even eating very slowly) and a reminder was given to a member of staff.  They did get their food in the end. On the plus side it was cheap, I had a nice pint of Guinness and the steak and ale pie I nommed was rather nice.

Due to our timing heading to what is really a bar, it's somewhat understandable for the slip in service. However what we couldn't fathom was why three girls were setting back the feminist movement 10,000 years. Dressed as cave girls, they were off their heads on something and throwing themselves in ever-increasing desperation at groups of guys on stag parties and pub crawls.When a group of drunken men on a stag do are trying their best to totally ignore a scantily-clad woman, you can kinda get the picture of how bad and cringeworthy this display of no dignity truly was. After managing to hook an equally plastered guy or two, it was a flashmob cabaret that we didn't want to witness any longer and so made tracks.

Our destination was Funny Girls, a drag act cabaret show but sadly when we got there it was standing room only and, after the last two days we'd had, we needed seats so had to give up on that idea. Instead we stocked up on munchies and made a beeline back to our rooms. Kitted out with pyjamas and snacks we chatted and watched TV; Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow came on and, by a twist of fate, it was in Blackpool.  The first comedian wasn't great but the next couple were brilliant and even guessed Norngirl's choice of coat for the trip and aptly mocked my Yorkshire roots. With shows like that who needs to go out anyway?!

Puddle on the tram tracks
Sunday came around far too soon and we woke up to a downpour. We did venture out but darted between amusement arcades, shops and coffee shops, like sea life lower down the food chain scouring for the cover of a rock.

In the end we found ourselves on Central Pier where Norngirl won a soft toy on one of the cuddly toy claw games - maybe I'm just naive but I later found the secret to their inner workings online and the secret is that you're better off buying the things. The fact is that its not a game of skill but a predetermined game of chance involving a counter and to beat it you'd need to stand around all day doing something as fun as counting colours of cars in a not so imaginative maths class and where is the fun in that?

After the sneakiness of the arcades we then went on the Waltzers where three of us in a car spun around every last second of the ride after it had got up to speed; the guy didn't even have to touch us as the Gs were mounting. Still spinning, we swayed our way down the pier and I bought the thing that, while perhaps not as synonymous with Blackpool than a stick of rock, is longer lasting (though that is debatable)... a fridge magnet with a tower and a tram on it.

On the end of Central Pier is a café-sort-of-bar-sort-of-entertainment venue and we sat down in there, looking out of the window at the scene pictured at the start of this post. The brew we had there gave us a little pick-me-up and we spent the rest of the day around the town, in the shops and guzzling tea and coffee like the OAPs in training that we are.

Blackpool sea front

My hunt for a cheap George Formby CDs returned empty; they had the Greatest Hits, which I'll proudly admit to owning, but the others I found were almost double the price you can buy them brand new on the Internet, so alas, I gave up on a bit of 'With my Little Stick of Blackpool Rock' and 'The Blackpool Bell was a Getaway Train', *sigh*

The sun did appear for a quick farewell before we left the 'Vegas of the North' and Norngirl and I had yet another cup of tea in a café on Coronation Street before heading back to wait with our bags for the taxi to the train station.

Blackpool Tower was soon disappearing behind the tree-lined verges of the railway line and I slipped into a chilli fudge coma, before getting sick of the stuff, and we arrived once again at Manchester Airport. From the airport train station, Terminal 3 is a 5-10 minute walk away, so as we traversed the signposted walkways, lifts and undercover footpaths, there was plenty of time for more shaming as the Cow of Shame was grazing again.

We reached check-in but the self-service terminals gave us a ticket asking us to go to the lady at the desk, so we did. Once all the details and formalities were out of the way she asked to see our hand luggage. I gingerly raised the Cow of Shame into plain sight. All I heard was 'Shame' and 'Cow of Shame' The lady asked if I'd had it since I was a child.  Thankfully Norngirl told the truth but an evil glint in her eye seemed to be heading towards a 'Yes' for a moment there. The lady gave me the due and understandable 'Cow of Shame!' and that was the shaming low complete.

We made our way to yet another coffee shop and got a bite to eat before a speedy flight back to Belfast. Though tired, once back in our rented house I really felt like going on another trip or at least travelling again; sadly, work loomed instead.

Blackpool turned out to be great fun, even if the weather wasn't the best the whole time we were there, and if anyone is heading to the Pleasure Beach anytime soon, please make room in your suitcase for me... I'd even ride there in a Cow of Shame!

Blackpool Beach

Monday, 4 October 2010

Photos of Funderland Belfast, Security says no.

On September 27th my wife and I headed along to experience Funderland's 2010 visit to Belfast. It turned out to be a trip tainted by an encounter with security staff but we had a good time regardless.

For those who don't know, Funderland is one of a few fun fairs which travel around Northern Ireland and Ireland filling some of the void for the need for a decent sized static theme park on this island. We went up to it on the bus from the city centre after work and at the entrance got our wristbands. It was rather quiet as it was a Monday evening and things hadn't got going yet so we wandered about the tarmac which had been used to house the fair.

There was one ride which could really be classed as a white knuckle roller-coaster, that being the Crazy Mouse which is a ride you can find in several places around the UK such as The Twister at Lightwater Valley and the identically named Crazy Mouse at Brighton pier. There was a generic log flume type ride with 2 drops that was an identical layout to those at other fairs and smaller amusement parks. The rest of the adult rides were either walk through or spinning. There was a big wheel, a white knuckle spinning ride which held you upside down for a while, a ride called 'Take Off' which I'd actually never come across before which I found quite fun, dodgems, a ghost train, chair swings, a gravity wheel, a ride called the snowjet, a small downward launch free-fall ride, waltzers and my favourite which was called 'Energy' which is a seemingly common ride (we saw another one on Central Pier in Blackpool at the weekend) but a good one! There were plenty of others but those were mainly children's rides we didn't go on. The staff who spoke were friendly and helped us on and off the rides, especially the guy on the Crazy Mouse who was very forgiving of two dizzy people starting to walk off the ride the wrong way.

The fair had a nice bunch of rides for a mobile event and as something of a theme park enthusiast I was pleasantly surprised and having a great time... that was until we were very much unpleasantly surprised!

We had been on several spinning rides and I was starting to feel a little sickly so rather than pushing it I held back going on the Snow Jet ride for a 2nd time but Norngirl wanted to ride it again. So there I was, camera in hand and with a minute or two to pass before the ride started and I could take her picture on it. I was literally parted enough time to take a photo of the lights on the corner of the dodgems with the Ferris wheel in the background, deleted it for being blurry and then tried to alter the settings on my compact camera (not even an SLR with a big lens) to take a photo of Norngirl on the ride.

Then out of the corner of my eye, two guys with a walkie talkies approach me. I looked at them curious as to why they appeared adamant that they were going to come over to chat but knowing I wasn't doing anything wrong (that I knew of) I thought that they were maybe going to ask me if I'd seen someone or something.

Apparently not. It was demanded of me that I tell them what I was talking photos of and for, I said I was about to take a photo of my wife on this ride. They then questioned my honesty by saying "I suppose you were taking a photo of your wife on that ride a second ago too" whilst pointing at the dodgems. I said "no, I was taking a picture of the lights and the wheel". At this point I was still very much confused as to why they were even asking me such questions and why I was being asked in an accusatory fashion and why the 2nd secruity guard had taken up a position 2 ft behind me in my blind spot. A position I'd only ever seen on TV bouncers taking up to make people consciously aware of their presence. I was baffled, after all, other people were taking photos earlier and I didn't see anyone else being approached. The only signs hinting at no photography I had seen were specific to taking no photography inside a ride itself which I had obliged by and the other rides didn't have these.

Feeling rather intimidated I remembered hearing of the scenario I'd found myself in. I went on a half day photography workshop earlier in the year to learn how to use my camera with Belfast Exposed. Thankfully this came to mind and I knew that for these guys to the right to tell me what I can and can't take pictures of (as long as I wasn't breaking any other laws such as harassing someone) they had to be able to show me or direct me to their photography policy, otherwise it is a public space and governed by the general rule or law.

As a gesture of goodwill and since they seemed eager to view my photos I said "I know I don't legally have to but if it helps I'll show you my photos" so I did and showed them a very nice photo (if I do say so myself) of the chair ride as a spinning blur of an orb above the back of peoples heads below. After that, instead of going along with more random questioning, I told them there were no signs displaying their photography policy I had seen and asked if they could show me to it. To which debate began between the guy keeping me stuck on the spot for a minute and the person on the other end of his walkie talky.

The guy couldn't show me to the policy but told me that I was not allowed to take photographs. I was then asked where my children were. I answered honestly "I don't have children", in my head I was thinking what sort of question is that? Are they wanting to evict me or accuse me of being a paedophile or something ridiculous?

I repeated the fact there are no signs saying there is to be no photography and that if there is I wouldn't but that I honestly haven't seen any and that if there isn't one its a public space and I can take a photo if I like. Still nothing but walky talky action and being blanked. Almost now at the point when the ride was about to finish and with Norngirl looking on with what went from a puzzled face to an angry face on each revolution of the pod she was sat in, they seemed to be stuck as to what to do. I just shrugged my shoulders to her and looked as bemused as I was feeling inside.

After much deliberation the (seemingly made up on the spot) policy was changed from NO photos to that I was now OK to take photos as long as they were not for publicity. So it seems that what this was all about was publicity. Security seemingly didn't want people taking photos on the off chance, even if its to promote their venture?

For the rest of our stay at Funderland we kept our eyes peeled. Was there a photography policy the guards knew but just couldn't point me to?

And then there on the booths of some of the rides including each of those I was taking a photograph of...

Take a photograph

I assume I'm safe to make this photo public on-line given it asked me to take it and permission to put it in a public space?

Back home, I went online, the Funderland website also has no park photography policy, if indeed it is OK to take photos in the park as any other public space then that's obviously this is as it would be so I must distance Funderland from the security who approached me if they are just hired in for the travelling event.

I can only conclude (since other theme parks do have their policies displayed and photography is generally allowed as long as its not in a show) that unless it was a genuine mistake and the security guards need to go back to security school, it has to be the case that as a person alone with a camera pointing at a ride with people on it I was deemed a risk to be in possession of photos of their event, however if that is the case and they know the law, why didn't they prepare for it and have signs or something they are able to direct me to?

Per the security guard's demands however I'm not going to show my photos even if it is legal. If that is their policy they've made their bed, now they can lay in it.

Incase you are wondering, I never did get a photo of Norngirl riding the Snow Jet but I did walk past the security guards with some nice photos for memories sake (as allowed by said security) and with my head held high for standing up for myself where as several years ago I would have just caved in to demands and regretted not saying something.


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