Venus as a Transit

I managed to see the Transit of Venus yesterday. Very cool. Not every day you get to witness something not seen for 120 years.

I projected an image of the Sun onto a piece of card using my battered old 8×30 binoculars, and it worked a treat. The weather was perfect, which helped of course. I just wish I had know about that trick during the last Solar Eclipse a few years ago. Russ and I made a very Heath Robinson pinhole camera to see that event. It worked, but the image was very small and fuzzy. Yesterday I ended up with a nice clear image about the size of a £2 coin.

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New feature added to the Image Browser

I have just updated the image browser to provide a new feature for anyone thinking of commissioning me, or if you would like to comment on specific images.

If you see something in my artwork portfolio that you think matches the style or content you are interested in, just click the remember this image button. This will add the image to a list that is remembered until you close your browser. When you go to the contact page, you will see a list of the images that you have remembered, and you can choose to include these with your message. I can then see which images you have selected, which helps me to get a good idea of what you are after.

You can also use it to send me your comments about particular images. I am always happy to get feedback from visitors, and I will always try to answer any questions or respond to comments.

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New BBC Scotland site online

At the beginning of this year, I completed a large number of illustrations for a new BBC Scotland Education site that explores the landscape and features of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

The BBC Scotland Landscapes site has now been launched, and the activities and games are great fun, so please check it out.

Congratulations to the design team who have done a great job assembling my illustrations into the animated scenes and activities that make up the site.

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What is going on in Australia

I am an unashamed fan of Aussie soap Neighbours, but I have to wonder what is going on at the moment with all the doom and gloom?

At the moment, we have Lou about to buy the farm in the Bush after losing his wife and all his money, Karl and Susuan Kennedy have split, seemingly for good this time, Evil Gus is causing problems for Max and Steph, Sky is distraught after confronting the man who killed her mother when she was a child, and Toadie seems about to come a cropper at the hands of cod Mafia boss Rocco now that he has faced up to his feelings for Sindi.

When will it all end? This is not why I watch Neighbours! I want, sun, sea, eternal optimism and impossibly perfect Australian girlies. Bring back the pool parties with Nina and Lori! Get Steph back in her leather bike gear! Get Sindi and Izzie down to the beach for a bit of bikini clad surfing! Restore my faith in the Australian Dream!

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The Last Samurai

Russ bought me a copy of The Last Samurai on DVD for my birthday, and I watched it last night for the first time (it is one of many “must see” films that I didn’t see at the cinema). Russ bought me it because he knows I like “all that Japanese sword waving and stuff”.

I know at that time of its cinema release, some reviewers criticised casting Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren but I thought he, and the film as a whole, was superb. The attention to detail in the customs, costumes and locations was excellent (to my non-historians eye at least). The story is, of course, blatant in its disregard for historical fact, but to criticise it for that is to miss the point entirely.

What The Last Samurai sets out to do is to capture the mood and spirit of the age; to explore and explain the philosophy of the Samurai for a modern Western audience (no easy task). It tries to show the conflict between the historical brutality of ancient Japan, and the necessity of embracing modern technology and foreign influence that has made Japan such an economic force in the modern world, and it does this faultlessly. The bruising bokken training sequences and savage sword fights demonstrate the unequalled skill, grace and ferocity of the Samurai, but ultimately are as brutal and tragic as the horrifying scenes of carnage at the hands of the American trained soldiers armed with Gatling guns.

Tom Cruise pays the role with great physical skill and energy, and manages to hold his own against the superb Ken Watanabe as Lord Katsumoto. I am not ashamed to admit that the tragic but inevitable outcome to the final battle had my lip trembling more than a little.

It is great to see Timothy Spall in such illustrious company too. Sadly, the usually brilliant Billy Connelly’s Irish accent was crap. Sorry Billy.

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The best laid plans of mice

Yesterday (Friday) was supposed to be a special day to celebrate my birthday (a day late, but hey, no work the next day). Elaine and I planned to have a nice meal and a few drinks at a nice local pub (The Holyhead to be exact – good food, and within easy walking distance).

The first sign that things would not go as planned was when I came down to discover that I had not heard the postman ringing the doorbell, and that Elaine’s latest Amazon spending spree had not been delivered. However, Elaine usually gets back from work around 4pm, so I foolishly assumed we could pick it up from the main Post Office that afternoon.

Unfortunately, Elaine returned home from work to report that our car was making very unpleasant noises. When I checked it, it was obvious the silencer was holed, and our humble Nissan Sunny now sounded like a Monster Truck. So, the book collection and weekly shopping trip was abandoned while I phoned round for quotes for a new back box, and waited in for a quote from a local garage that never materialised. Yes, Autoworkshop, I do mean you.

With plans to get the car fixed the following morning, we headed off to the pub for a relaxing evening. Unfortunately, the usually excellent food at The Holyhead was distinctly average, with my selection from the paltry 2 vegetarian options on the new summer menu turning out to be naff pre-cooked flan that had been micro-waved to death. To make matters worse, 20 minutes after eating I started to feel decidedly unwell. Now, I can’t blame the pub grub for this. My digestive system always exists on a knife edge, as anyone who knows me can attest to, and I think my failure to eat properly during the day was the biggest factor. Still, it meant we had to curtail our evening out, and head back to the sofa. Still, at least we got to see the penultimate episode of Friends, which we had forgotten so record.

This morning, still feeling a bit miffed that we had to cut our evening short, I readied myself to take the car in for a new exhaust, only to discover that I had lost my mobile phone! Now its not a great phone, in fact it is crap, but it does its job well enough provided I keep an eye on the battery charge, and I was still pretty miffed to have lost the damned thing. Luckily, when Elaine called my mobile number, we where relieved to find that it was safely behind the bar at The Holyhead, where it had obviously dropped out of my coat pocket. It seems my phone is too crap to even get stolen!

However, my good fortune at avoiding the cost of buying a new mobile phone was short lived. When the mechanic at National Tyres put my car up on the ramp to inspect the exhaust, he discovered that not only was the rear silencer badly holed, but the front section was also too badly corroded to be serviceable. So, the £50 back box became a £150 complete system, and fitting time went from 30 minutes to 90 minutes. To give credit to the car, the front section of the exhaust pipe was the factory fitted Nissan original, which had lasted an impressive 12 years, so I shouldn’t really complain. Still, a shock to the wallet however you look at it.

The upshot is that by the time the car was fixed, it was too late to pick up Elaine’s book, and the rest of our supposedly relaxing Saturday was spent trying to catch up with shopping and chores. Damn, you forget how easy a car makes things until it is broken. And damn the Post Office for shutting at 1pm on a Saturday!

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Happy birthday to me

Yes, its that time of year again. Another milestone passed on the road to oblivion.

Yes, birthdays really cheer me up these days. You can tell, can’t you? You would think after so much practice, I would be used to them by now.

A big thank you to everyone who send me cards, e-mails, messages and presents.

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Midlife crisis hits early

Oh dear, oh dear. I made the mistake of going in to Alf England in Bedworth on Saturday. They have a nice array of the new Yamaha FZ6 Fazers in there, and I am afraid I fell instantly in lust with a pretty red one.

Take a look at this bad girl and tell me she is not a finely constructed motorcycle, and a bargain at £5500! Unfortunately, with zero no-claims discount after so many years out of the saddle, the insurance is a hefty £800, even for someone of my advancing years.

Still, if anyone out there wants to send me one, I’m sure I could enlarge the letterbox if you give me a few days notice.

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Mac OS X security flaw

A potentially serious security flaw has been identified in Mac OS X. The attack exploits a vulnerability in the Help Viewer application, and allows local scripts to be run just by visiting a web address, by using the help: protocol handler. The situation is made worse by the possibility of unwittingly downloading a disk image (.dmg) loaded with malicious content, which can then be executed using the Help Viewer vulnerability. This could allow a determined attacker to wreak havoc on a users home directory.

To test if your system is vulnerable to this attack, open this benign example of the exploit in a new window. It will open the Help Viewer application, and in turn run a harmless but scary looking Terminal script.

As far as I know, this exploit has not caused any damage to anyone, and it is simple to secure your system against attack. There are several ways to do this, many involving changing the application that handles the help: protocol. However, this approach means that no help files can be accessed. I found the following tip effective against the example exploits:

Rename to folder at /Library/Documentation/Help to something like /Library/Documentation/Help-safe

To prevent a browser from helpfully recreating the Help folder, create a blank symbolic link in the Terminal:

ln -s /dev/null /Library/Documentation/Help

This will mean that the system help files will not be accessible via Help Viewer, but application help files should still work fine. When Apple release a fix (expect one soon) then remember to delete the link and rename the Help folder back to its original name.

OS X has a very good security record so far, and this an unexpected lapse. But as many commentators have said, it would have been nice if Apple had been more upfront about this exploit, and they need to shake a leg and get this flaw patched ASAP.

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