All Posts Filed in ‘Looking Back

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The Apollo Moon Missions and Me

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I grew up in an era full of hope for space exploration. I was born in 1974 – 5 years after the first moon landing and 2 years after the last. My earliest TV memories are of a couple of astronauts bouncing around the lunar surface in a vast, grey desolate landscape on a buggy made of gold. I watched shuttle launches with a sense of awe at what these lucky people were doing, wonder at the footage they sent back of the Earth from space and sadness at the lives lost in the two shuttle disasters. But that never lessened my desire to see humans (like me) explore the stars and in that time it seemed inevitable.

My good friend John Topley recommended I read a book called “Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey” by Michael Collins. Since John’s been right about everything in the past I added it to my wishlist and as soon as I had some time I bought the book and read it from cover to cover. He was indeed correct, it’s a tremendous read and it scratched an itch I realised I’d had all my life.

While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were swanning around the surface of the moon Mike was floating in space orbiting in the Command Module, waiting for their return. He then piloted them back to earth. The book was written in 1974 and charts his early career as a military pilot, test pilot and then eventually as an astronaut preparing to – with a bit of luck – fly to the moon and back. It makes for a fascinating read on many levels.

I was and still am absolutely fascinated not just by the vastness of space, but the little blue marble we live on. Even to this day when I see footage of Earth from space or stare at the following classic “earthrise” NASA photo I feel shivers down my spine. It’s just such an amazing sight.

Earthrise

But reading about what actually went into the moon landings has given me a new respect for the people involved. Striving to put a man on the moon may have been politically motivated, but whatever the motivation, its legacy has reached far beyond the moon itself. But more about that later.

Being given a project to put a man on the moon must have been terrifying from an engineering point of view. Where do you begin? How do you develop and test the technology? How do you maximise your chance of success?

Well, in what must surely be the most impressive engineering exercise of all time, they broke the whole project down into a series of small deliverables, each building on the lessons learned from the previous one. This began with Project Mercury whose ultimate goal was to put a man in low earth orbit and push the envelope in each mission.

Next up was Project Gemini which focussed on extra vehicular activity (space walks), rendezvous procedures (undocking and docking two orbiting crafts), navigation systems (there was no GPS back then and if you wanted to fly to the moon and back you really needed to be able to know exactly where you were and what direction you were pointing), space suits and a host of other technologies that would be needed for the moon trips. This was where Michael Collins came into the picture and when I realised just how unbelievably hard being an astronaut was. You needed balls of steel, ace piloting skills, be super-cool under pressure and be a maths genius. Frequently all at the same time.

Take Gemini 10, the mission Michael Collins was on. It was a 3 day orbital mission containing:

  • 2 rendezvous procedures (docking and undocking with two other craft in orbit). If you’re orbiting the earth and want to catch up to another craft that’s away in the distance you’d expect to just fire the rockets to speed up, catch up to the craft, slow down, dock, job done. Except in orbit that doesn’t work. Speeding up puts you into a higher orbit so you actually get further away from the craft so you have to slow down, drop into a lower, faster orbit, then speed up to catch up. Except the calculations to do it are mind boggling. And there were no MacBook Airs in the 60s, so this all had to be worked out while flying the cramped ship by hand.
  • 2 EVAs. There had only been 3 space walks ever attempted and they had all turned out to be nightmarishly hard work. Manoeuvring in zero gravity is an exercise in Newtons third law of motion (even the tiniest pressure exerted in one direction would result in an equal and opposite counter-reaction – making even holding onto the edge of a space craft very tough) and in pressurised suits, completely exhausting.
  • 15 separate scientific experiments including testing various navigation computers and techniques requiring detailed manual, mind-sapping calculations.

Oh yes, and there was also the small matter of eating, sleeping, dealing with all the unexpected situations that would occur (every mission was a journey into the unknown) and of course punching through the atmosphere and getting back to earth. And that was just a 3 day mission!

Next up came the Project Apollo and the ultimate goal was of course to land men on the moon and return in one piece. It didn’t start well as the crew of Apollo 1 were killed on the launch pad when their oxygen filled craft caught fire. With the loss of several astronauts to various plane crashes, this highlighted just how dangerous space exploration was and is. They eventually carried on having worked out what caused the fire and how best to deal with it and the Apollo missions laid the path to the moon.

The astronauts never really knew who was going to get the shot at landing on the moon and of course while Michael Collins was in the command module orbiting while Aldrin and Armstrong went to the surface, that was as close as he was ever going to get.

The Orbital Command Module

The command module that was home for Michael Collins on Apollo 11

The work that it took to get to the moon was staggering and the qualities required to be an astronaut really were incredible. While I always looked at them as supermen before, I hold them in even higher regard now. But for me the legacy of Apollo is not about the moon, it’s about the earth.

The focus for the whole program was beating the Russians to the moon, but as soon as the astronauts beamed back footage of an ever shrinking blue marble while they sped to the moon, the world was forever changed. Only 24 humans that have ever lived have gazed upon the whole planet and I can only imagine what that must feel like, but for me at least seeing the pictures and film of the earth just make me see how fragile and beautiful it is. It’s no coincidence that the green movement took off around the same time.

While it’s undoubtably a great shame that space exploration has gone backwards since the 1970s, we owe a great deal of our modern technology to the work NASA did in making it happen. You can see an exhaustive list here. Had we carried on who knows what we’d have created to cope with trips to Mars – energy production, propulsion and so on. Ah well, maybe next century!

My favourite quote was from man-of-few-words Neil Armstrong. He said of his time on the moon: “it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth”. When asked if it made him feel like a giant he pondered for a while before replying “no, it made me feel very very small”.

When I look up at the moon in the night sky and see a black shadow across it I now see it in my mind from the point of view of space. The sun on one side, the earth in the middle casting a shadow on the moon on the other. That black shadow is us. And it makes me feel very very small too.

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The Perils And Pleasures Of An Inquisitive Mind

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If you follow the tech news you’ll often come across stories of “hackers” that have broken into secure military systems, stolen user’s login details to social networking site, extracted lists of credit card numbers from online shops, written viruses that spread across the world blocking up networks and a host of other “evil” and disruptive things. Quite often it turns out that the people doing it were young and inquisitive and instead of having evil motives just wanted to do it to see if they could.

It’s easy to look at these people with scorn and say they should channel their computing skills more wisely, but I never think that because I know exactly where they’re coming from.

I’ve managed to make a career writing software for a living. I’m fortunate in that the products I’ve built are, at any one time, in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people. I pride myself on my software craftsmanship – making phenomenal attention to detail my minimum requirement. I’m pathologically obsessed with details and building the best and most robust products I can while balancing the fact that I can’t spend an eternity polishing and improving – ultimately I have to get what I build in to the hands of people. And you know what? I may not be the smartest guy, the most talented developer or the most creative soul, but I’m pretty good at getting it done – shipping quality software.

While my University degree did cover a bit of software engineering, everything I’ve learned I learned by working with great people and having an inquisitive mind with a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement. However I had to start somewhere.

Back when I attended University it was the early days of the internet and there was a networked computer system that all students had access to. You logged on from any of the desktop computers and could access a variety of systems. I can’t remember what any of these systems were but I can remember the login system. You typed something like ‘login’ and hit a screen that asked for your user name and your password. Then you were in.

It struck me that it wasn’t very secure. If you walked up to a computer that was already showing you the login screen, how would you know it really was the login screen? So I decided to write a small piece of software that looked exactly the same, but when a user put their details in it would store them to a file, tell them they’d entered invalid login details and exit. They’d assume they’d mis-typed their password, login again and success!

Anyway, I wrote my little program, copied it onto a few machines when nobody was looking and ran it on each one so that as I walked away, anybody sitting down would think it was left at the login page. I returned a day or so later and sure enough, on each machine I’d have a look at the hard drive and my password file would have a user name and password for a real user. I tried one out, it worked, then I logged out.

To be clear, my motives had nothing to do with stealing passwords or logging into other people’s accounts. My concern was that the login system was insecure and I wanted to prove it in the best way possible – with real users. Clearly I was ahead of my time in terms of usability testing principles! I wanted to prove that the system was easy to hijack and, once I confirmed that to myself I deleted the programs and all the password files. I was much more interested in how I’d solve the problem to make the login system more secure than using login details for mischief.

The Windows NT Log On ScreenI found it interesting that when Windows NT came along you had to hit Ctrl+Alt+Del to bring up the login dialog (see right). Since that key sequence couldn’t be hijacked on Windows you could guarantee when you pressed it that nobody was running a malicious login screen. Most people didn’t realise this fact but I did following on from my investigations of the network login page while I was a student. I realised then that the people in Microsoft who came up with that solution clearly thought the same way I did. And now I know they do since my career has been doing the same thing they do – building software.

It turns out that to write robust software you need to think about every possible thing that could go wrong because if you have more than 1-2 users, everything that possibly could go wrong absolutely will go wrong at one time or another. The most consistent difference between good developers and mediocre ones is that the latter always code for the ideal situation – it never occurs to them that the user’s network connection might fail, their system might run out of memory, they might delete some files out from under you, that a service you’re using might fall over or that when they query for some data, nothing may come back, etc. Good people look at something and instinctively think “what if X goes wrong?” and try to think through all the edge cases they can. That same attitude is what made me look at the flaws in my University network login system and think about how it could be made more secure.

I’m definitely not the only software developer who’s done questionable things with software in their youth in the name of curiosity or inquisitiveness. Still, I never got caught because I learned to keep my mouth shut. Until today. So let’s just keep this a secret between you and me dear reader! 😉

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Ten Years Of Incoherent Ramblings (Blogging)

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Slightly over ten years ago I came up with an idea. I’d left University and moved from Scotland down to Yorkshire and was struggling to effectively keep in touch with friends and family. While sending out lots of emails saying the same thing over and over again was fun I thought there had to be a better way to do it. Unrelated to this I’d previously, on a whim, registered the domain www.jbconners.com and hadn’t a clue what to do with it.

Then that idea I mentioned struck me. What if, instead of emailing everybody telling them what I’m up to, I simply created a website, wrote about all the things I got up to and had it automatically email friends and family when I posted something new? People could post comments after each article and no more multiple emailing. Genius!

I certainly wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea (there were plenty of people who’d been doing it for years already) but weblogs – or blogs as they eventually became known – were nowhere near as popular as they are now. I began with a simple site – a reverse chronological list of posts – newest first – and collected them into monthly archives. Whenever I posted something new I sent out an email to all the people I knew who wanted to be kept updated. I hand rolled some basic commenting functionality (this was before comment spam existed – those were the days) that let people add their two cents. I eventually renamed the site to “John’s Adventures” in a kind of ironic way and it stuck.

My goal was always to keep people in touch with what I was up to and friends and family were the audience I was writing to in my mind. I certainly wasn’t writing trying to become popular, famous, monetize or attract any attention at all – just keep friends and family up to date with my life. And for the past 10 years that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

The thing that’s surprised me (other than that a great many people actually choose to come and read what I’ve written) is how much I’ve connected with people out there in the real world through my site. For instance, when I eventually came to terms with the death of my mother I put pen to paper to write down my thoughts on the process. Some time later I decided to post it here and the response has been overwhelming in terms of comments and emails from people telling me they felt the same way, it brought comfort to them or that they were glad to hear they weren’t alone.

I’ve made many friends I got to know virtually through blogging. I remember the first time I actually met my now good friend John Topley – I realised I actually knew him more than most of my real world friends! I’ve made friends I’ve still yet to meet (like Anne – who wrote the first blog I followed and still do). I’ve been recognised in the real world from the things I’ve written having been asked: “You’re not John Conners are you?” as well as by the software I’ve built and publicised here.

I’ve even been sent random free stuff which I’m never going to complain about! However despite repeatedly writing about travelling nobody’s sent me any first class tickets to Bora Bora so that remains one of my hopes! 😉

It’s also helped me improve my general writing skills. I’ve always tried to write in the same way I speak in the real world. So if you know me in the real world you’ll hear my voice in your head reading this text out but likewise if you’re reading this and haven’t met me you already know how my sense of humour works in the real world and that I talk a lot! In terms of communicating with people via the written word be it in a work context or otherwise, writing here has helped me immeasurably.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that “blogging is dead” when new fads come along like MySpace, twitter and Facebook. I do partake in the social networking thing (as anyone unlucky enough to be my friend on Facebook will attest to). However while sometimes weeks can pass without posting anything here, the compulsion to write about the random things I get up to along with photos of the things I’ve been doing eventually overcomes me and I come crawling back.

I sometimes take a look through my archives and re-read things I wrote years ago. Often it makes me laugh or smile as I remember events I’d long since forgotten. I’ve even searched Google for an answer to a question and found myself on my own site where I wrote the answer! It’s a small virtual world.

Anyway, I see no reason to stop doing what I enjoy so here’s to the next 10 years and beyond! 🙂

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Tsunami

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When I was a young lad I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge (actually I still do, but more so back then). I read books on everything I could get my hands on – from insects to spiders to atlases to books about space, science, just about anything. I wanted to see what was outside my door and understand everything around me and in the pre-internet, 3 TV channel age that it was, books were the way to go.

One of the books I read that stuck with me was about tsunami through the eyes of a scientist who investigated them and was trying to design ways to defend against them. I think it was actually called ‘Tsunami’. At the time the word ‘tsunami’ wasn’t particularly well-known with the term ‘tidal wave’ being used in its place. Prior to reading the book my mental picture of a tidal wave (tsunami) was of a giant wave (like the sort of thing a pro surfer rides) breaking over land, carrying with it some boats and debris, then just dumping a load of water where previously there was land – I knew that Britain was once connected to Europe by a landmass that was flooded courtesy of a tsunami in the dim and distant past so figured that was the outcome.

On reading the book it turned out I was completely wrong about virtually everything I thought I knew.

Back then there was pretty much no recorded film of a tsunami. This is long before personal video cameras, never mind mobile phones. So the scientist spent his time visiting places that had just been hit and one of his frustrations was seeing the incredible damage caused but having to rely on eyewitness accounts to try to make sense of what actually happened rather than seeing it for himself. Since tsunami are as likely to strike at night, without warning and kill most of the people who encounter them, his information was sparse.

But the things he found to be consistently reported by all people who survived tsunami were then forever embedded in my psyche and came back to haunt me when watching footage of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 and the recent tragedy in Japan. The first thing I learned was what a tsunami actually is.

Most tsunami occur when an earthquake causes a shift in the ground at the bottom of the sea. We’ve all seen pictures of an earthquake at a fault line splitting roads in two and pushing one side metres up in the air. Tectonic plates don’t care if they’re on dry land or at the bottom of the sea so if one occurs down there and a few miles of ocean floor suddenly finds itself raised upwards then a huge volume of water (all the water above the plate that’s shifted upwards) is displaced in a very short place of time. This causes enormous waves to start propagating outwards from the site of the shift. Except it doesn’t look very big to the observer on the surface.

Normal waves out at sea are caused mostly by the weather (either the wind, warm water mixing with cold or other similar actions). Even large waves are only really on the surface so are at most a few metres in height. However the wave generated by an earthquake starts at the sea bed and stretches to the surface. So instead of being a few metres in height it could be a couple of miles in height. Since earthquakes happen very quickly the resulting wave will be moving at serious speed – up to hundreds of miles per hour. Yet at sea you wouldn’t notice a tsunami wave at all – it would appear on the surface to be a normal wave or waves (there are usually multiple waves generated).

Things get scary when the tsunami waves approach land. As a 2 mile high wave reaches land the depth of the water reduces and this causes a huge build up of water while the wave slows down. Think of a bunch of runners sprinting along a road when they hit a deep muddy section. As they do this they slow down and the faster runners still on dry land quickly catch up and pack together with those wading through the mud – the density of people keeps increasing and it gets pretty crowded. Then when runners get clear of the mud they all spill out at once. In the same way the volume of water moving towards shore starts to build up and that’s where the first and only warning sign is.

The book talked about one telltale sign a tsunami was on its way. Suddenly, without warning and without any noise or fuss, all the water on the beach disappears in a matter of minutes. It’s like someone’s pulled the plug and the sea has drained away. When I watched footage from the 2004 tsunami I could see people standing on the beach looking out at shipwrecks suddenly revealed wondering what was going on. The book I read said in no uncertain terms that if you ever found yourself seeing a similar phenomenon then you should run for high ground as fast as you can, because what comes next will kill you for certain.

The reason the water drains away comes back to that huge wave building up as the tsunami slows down. Water starts to pile up and the usual ebb and flow at the beach gets halted so it all runs back out to sea. Shortly afterwards, instead of a huge surfers wave hitting the beach as I’d imagined, water just starts flowing and flowing and flowing carrying huge momentum. It picks up debris and destroys everything in its wake – particularly man-made. It’ll carry boats, ships, trees, cars, houses and it’s relentless. The scientist often found boats deposited several miles inland and he realised that when the water has extended as far inland as it could, gravity would kick in and it would flow back out to sea again. Some of the debris would be left in place, some of it dragged miles back out to the sea.

Until I read the book I’d imagined a single perfect wave crashing down on the shore. Afterwards I understood the mechanics of what was happening and how instead it made sense to think about it as a surge of a huge volume of water destroying everything in its wake. That there was very little you could do to predict or battle against it. And that your only warning is the sea disappearing. That stuck with me for 20 years.

Watching the footage from the 2004 Boxing Day and recent Japanese tsunami was horrifying for obvious reasons. But to actually see what I read about as a child unfold in front of my eyes knowing the damage it was doing was both fascinating and terrifying. Fascinating because as a child I wanted to see what a tsunami looked like. Terrifying because I was actually getting to see what a tsunami looked like. And it was every bit as bad as I’d imagined.

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Why I Stare At The Sky

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I remember being a small boy looking up at the night sky in a state of awe. Awe at what I was looking at knowing what I was actually seeing. I was one of these geeky kids – quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, but above all curious. Whatever I saw I wanted to understand. I’m told by my father that as an even younger child I used to cry when the wind blew in my hair – I like to think that I wasn’t a wuss, I just didn’t understand what the wind was and didn’t like it. (I’m sticking to that excuse!).

When I looked at the night sky and saw twinkling stars I wanted to understand what they were. So I read books and learned that what I was looking at wasn’t the sky as it was, I was looking at history. The stars were so distant that the light from them could take millions of years to reach my eyes and I wondered what they looked like now – were they still there? Was somebody looking back at me? That’s when I started to understand the scale of the universe out there. Cycling to the next village seemed like a long way, yet I knew that the planet we were on was a tiny dot compared to the star we’re spinning around, which itself was pretty small as stars go and there I was looking at countless stars in the sky just like our sun impossibly far apart.

The Orion Nebula

But my eyes were really opened when I looked up at the stars in a remote part of Scotland with no villages or towns nearby – so no light pollution – and for the first time in my life I could actually see the Milky Way. Far from being a chocolate bar, it’s actually a side-on view of the galaxy we’re a part of and there are so many stars in them you couldn’t count them (I couldn’t count up to a billion back then). The feeling of wonder I had just standing staring out into infinity is the sort of thing you can only experience as a child. I was open minded, full of imagination, wondering what the view was like from these far flung places and wishing I could travel between the stars exploring in a vaguely Star Trek way (but without the skin-tight uniforms). Realising the distances were so enormous I started to wonder how I might get there within my lifetime.

Being a child I could think without boundaries or limitations and this led me to wonder about the nature of space, time and gravity (I did say I was a geeky child). I remember explaining to my parents how I reckoned that if you could create enough gravity between two points you could travel from one to the other without going through the space in between and they had no idea what I was on about (many years later my mother watched a programme about just such a theory and thought I was a bit less crazy from then on). Staring at the night sky captured my imagination and I could stare for hours at pictures of galaxies and nebulae wondering at the vastness of the universe and how I was stuck on planet earth staring at it through a telescope rather than being out there experiencing it.

More Galaxies Than You Can Shake A Stick At

I’ve never lost that sense of wonder about the universe and whenever I see photos or video from space looking back at earth I always feel almost emotional to look at where we are. I’m of the opinion that if everybody could go into space just once and look down on our planet as the blue marble that it is – so fragile with a tiny, wafer-thin band of atmosphere that makes our life possible – then the world would be a better place for it. Maybe in that case the first world would stop exploiting and plundering the third world for resources and enable our civilisation to last long enough that we can get out and explore the incredible universe we inhabit rather than destroy the beautiful planet on which we live. As I grew from childhood into adulthood I could see that people’s perspectives change. Instead of looking out into the world and beyond with a sense of wonderment and awe people shuffle along looking at their feet, eyes and minds closed, sleepwalking their lives away. Maybe it’s human nature.

But I’ll always be that kid staring up at the night sky with my mouth wide open imagining what civilisations have risen and fallen in the time taken for the light to travel from the stars to my eyes. How tiny and insignificant we are, how short our lives are in the grand scheme of things and what a miracle it is that I’m standing here staring at all. And fortunately I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

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The Cheesecake Comes Full Circle

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When my brother and I were youngsters my parents would often organise dinner parties. My memories of these dinner parties start with my mother cooking lots of lovely looking food, which we weren’t allowed to touch. As the time people were to arrive neared my brother and I would be lectured on how we were to not make any noise while we were upstairs and to leave them alone – and absolutely not to fight. We could stay downstairs to say hello but then we were off to bed! My mother would, for reasons we couldn’t understand, get more and more tense as the clock ticked closer to arrival time (not helped by my brother and I fighting of course). She’d be making sure the food was going to be ready, would get changed into smart clothes and ensure that the house was spotlessly tidy and all our toys were away. I don’t remember my father having much involvement with proceedings at this point, but it was another era where women generally ran the kitchen and men generally went out to work, so that may be why. Or perhaps he was sensible enough to go down to the pub to avoid my mother’s fretting.

Anyway, my mother would often make a special cheesecake for these dinner parties. The cheesecake was special for two reasons. One: she would only ever make this cheesecake for dinner parties and not for us to eat at normal times. And two: it was absolutely, positively, magnificently delicious. I mean unlike any store-bought cheesecake you could ever have – it was heavenly. These two factors tended to conspire against my brother and I since by definition the cheesecake would be eaten by those attending the dinner party – and that meant no leftovers for us to eat the following day. So we’d beg her to please, please, please make sure some was left for us and if not could she please, please, please make one for us next weekend?! We promise not to fight and to tidy our rooms! Being the wonderful parents that they were there most often were leftovers and we’d eat every last drop of the cheesecake and then crave more.

So fast forward 20 years (actually it’s more than that – but 20 years sounds better than the truth) to last Saturday. I’m attending a dinner party with my other half and in this particular case one couple is making the starter, one the main course and another – that would be us – the dessert. There’s nothing for it, I’m going to make a cheesecake! Now it’s a proud Conners tradition (that I made up) that only a Mrs Conners can make my mother’s cheesecake, and since I’m Mr Conners (to you), I thought I’d make a white chocolate cheesecake instead – a recipe from a friend of mine who has a sweeter tooth than I – knowing from making it in the past that it was delicious. I don’t actually like white chocolate but love this particular white chocolate cheesecake – which says it all. Except of course I’d lost the recipe and my friend lives in New Zealand and the only other person who has it isn’t around!

In an ironic twist I had a document called ‘Torrie’s White Chocolate Cheesecake’ that was in fact my mother’s cheesecake recipe mis-titled! Anyway, I had a look through several cook books for a similar white chocolate cheesecake recipe and finally found one that was more elaborate, but seemed to fit the bill. So cut to me on Saturday morning at 1am taking the cheesecake out of the oven (they take quite a while to make) and worrying if it was going to set, was going to taste nice, how I was going to decorate it and so forth, hearing my mother’s voice in my head laughing “see John, it’s not as easy as it looks, and you’re only making the dessert!”.

I decorated it with some white and milk chocolate and finished it off with some raspberries from the garden:

My Cheesecake

And you know what? It tasted bloody delicious! And even better, there were leftovers for the next couple of days which I happily polished off. 🙂

I always used to think dinner parties were formal affairs, somewhat posh and a bit pretentious. But they’re not. When you’re young you meet out at a pub, maybe get a burger or kebab if you’re hungry. As you get older your taste improves and you dine out at a restaurant. Then kids come along and you can’t get out as much (babysitters and what not) so instead meet up at friends houses for dinner – and voila, you have a dinner party. So while we were out on Saturday night at our friends I couldn’t help think of their young daughter upstairs and remember that being my brother and I. Sitting, hoping there would be some cheesecake left over in the morning. And there I was downstairs eating exactly as my parents would have all those years ago (albeit dressed a lot more casually). And so the circle of life – and cheesecake – is complete!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, when we’ve made my mother’s cheesecake since it still does taste just as good as I remember. Although it’s never quite the same without her telling me I’m not allowed any of it!

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10 Years In Yorkshire

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I moved down to Yorkshire from Scotland in June 1999 on a very sunny day. All I had was myself, a red Mk2 Golf GTi full of my worldly possessions, a new job as a software developer just outside the village of Skipton and an optimistic spirit. I didn’t know anybody in the area, didn’t really know the area itself and was looking forward to a bit of an adventure. Look at me – young, dumb and full of something or other:

Me And My Old Golf GTi

I sit here 10 years later married to the first girl I met when I moved here (the lovely Rachael), our own 4 bedroom house, a lot of very good friends I’ll know for the rest of my life, have had more jobs than I can shake a stick at, many happy memories from travelling the world, a fondness of food that resulted from a decade of being exposed to quality curries and constant talk about pies (ok, that last part is a lie) and a feeling that while the last 10 years has flown by my time before was a lifetime ago.

The John Conners of 10 years ago had no dress sense, no appreciation of the finer things in life, awful dyed blonde hair, a tendency to offend people he met for the first time (his dry and brash sense of humour might work at the comedy club but left people in the real world not sure how to take him), had a fondness for outdoor pursuits and was confident to the point of arrogance (many would claim well past that point). He was rather self-centred and if I were you I wouldn’t have let him date your daughter – sooner or later they’d walk away mentally scarred for life (he wasn’t what you’d call a considerate lover)! But the one thing in his favour was that he had an enthusiasm and lust for life which many would have described as infectious. He made a point to live in the moment, to savour every second of life and try to make the most of it.

The John Conners 10 years later isn’t really all that different when it comes down to it. He’s more of a refined version of his earlier self. One who can actually take criticism, doesn’t offend people that he’s just met (as much), appreciates the finer things in life, is culturing a nice crop of grey hair (apparently it looks distinguished), shops pretty much exclusively for clothes in Fat Face, still loves the outdoors and goes hiking when he can (although doesn’t mountain bike enough), is still very confident but honestly he’s not arrogant (really!), and having read ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus‘ he realised the error of his ways and why his previous failed relationships were all his fault, so he’s not as bad a partner as he used to be (although his wife may disagree)!

But the lust for life is still there and if anything it’s stronger than before. Losing my mother to cancer reinforced my thoughts about how temporary life is and that you have to make the most of it and while it was a tough few years afterwards it made me a stronger person, not to mention making a connection with so many people. I’ve never taken life for granted and recognise that while I’ve had my fair share of bad luck, I’ve had a hell of a lot of good fortune along the way.

When I moved down from Scotland I didn’t really look very far ahead. If you’d told me then that 10 years later I’d still be living in the same village I’d have raised an eyebrow in surprise. I guess as a brash 24 year old I expected I’d be moving all over the world, exploring and adventuring. However while I’ve certainly done that on holidays the lesson I learned is that home is where your heart is, and for the past 10 years my heart has been in the green, often rainy pastures of Yorkshire.

Me Above Silsden Hill

And now to the next 10 years. But since I live in the moment there’s only right now. And now. And… You get the idea! 😉

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Ten Observations That Tell Me I’m Not As Young As I Used To Be

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Just a few short years ago I never thought I’d be saying things like these:

  1. I was on a night out talking to a couple of girls, one 18 and the other 21. Instead of chatting them up and trying to get them into bed I found myself lecturing them about consumerism in society and involuntarily start giving them advice about life in a horribly father-like way.
  2. I don’t even bother pulling out my grey hairs any more. There’s no point, if I did I’d just leave bald patches on my head and besides, there are far too many of them to get the lot.
  3. Some of my friends children are old enough to drive, get married and buy their own houses. It seems like only yesterday they were little kids running around and now – at half my age – they’re fully featured adults.
  4. Of the last dozen or so CDs I bought more than half of them were recorded over ten years ago. I’ve already started saying how everything sounds the same, there’s very little innovation in modern music and you just don’t get music like you used to.
  5. My dad used to use the phrase “20 odd years ago” to describe when he’d last seen someone or been somewhere on holiday. 20 years felt like an eternity to me then but now I use the phrase all the time myself and 20 years feels like only yesterday.
  6. I can still remember life before The Simpsons. That was 20 odd years ago.
  7. I recently found out how old the “old man” in my football team is. He’s 5 years younger than me!
  8. I still just don’t “get” twitter or Facebook. I’m not famous so nobody follows my twitter account and as I can’t even keep track of the tweets of the handful of people I follow I just don’t see the point. I stay in contact with my friends in the real world rather than the virtual one so I don’t really know why I’d want to keeping checking their statuses or how many zombies they’ve converted. Since all the kids are doing it and a classic old person trait is to not “get” new technology I guess that makes me old.
  9. My t-shirt to shirt ratio (the number of t-shirts in my wardrobe compared to the number of shirts) ran at about 15:1 throughout my 20’s. Now that ratio is closer to 3:1. As I’ve never had to wear a shirt to work (since I work in IT) the fact that when buying clothes I look at shirts before t-shirts speaks volumes.
  10. I’m always banging on about how I’m not a youth any more and wondering where all the time went. See the 9 points above. 😉

Now if I start wearing tank tops over a shirt you have my permission to grab me by the collar and shake me until I see sense and stop acting like I’m 75 when I’m not even 35 yet!

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Life On Mars (Better Late Than Never)

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Typically for me I missed the hype of the BBC series Life On Mars a few years back but managed to acquire the first series on DVD last Christmas (that’s not the Christmas just passed, it’s the one a year ago). I have a pile of books to read as long as your arm and a pile of as-yet unwatched DVDs as long as your leg so I finally got around to watching Life On Mars this Christmas and wow, it’s brilliant!

For those like me who are several years out of date with everything (for example generally I wait until a band has broken up or died before I become a fan, not by choice, it’s just the way it seems to pan out) then the premise is that a police officer from the modern day – Sam Tyler – is involved in a car accident and wakes up in 1973 somewhat confused and still a copper. He’s not sure if he’s in a coma imagining the whole thing or has travelled back in time and his boss – DCI Gene Hunt – is a classic 70’s Sweeney-style copper who’s happy to fit someone up or beat a confession out of them just to get a result – quite contrary the current 21st century methodical approach to policing.

What made the show such a success was the way it approached the problems of racism, sexism, homophobia, police corruption and other issues of the day and showed how they came to be and why life was like that back then. By having a politically correct 21st century metrosexual thrown into that world he was a fish out of water feeling like he was on another planet and the contrasts between the attitudes in our world and that of the 70’s made me feel like I’d stick out a mile then. However what was even more clever was the way it demonstrated how nowadays crime is out of control, the police are caught up in red tape and politics, any sense of community is lost, and for all our freedoms, high technology and enlightened thinking, the world of the 70’s has its merits. By the end of the second and final season he’s become more at home in the world of the 70’s than the 21st century (I’ll leave it at that and not spoil the ending). The acting was excellent, the story-lines compelling, the music the pick of the 70’s (most of which reminded me of my early childhood) and Gene Hunt was a fantastic character with classic exchanges like this:

SAM TYLER: You’re an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.

GENE HUNT: You say that like it’s a bad thing!

We watched season one over a couple days (having stayed up until 2.30am the first night) and immediately ordered season two which we consumed with similar gusto. It was entertaining, sad, thought-provoking and in a way made me long for the world I grew up in where a hoodie was a type of jumper, not a teenage, uneducated hooligan with no work ethic and a fondness of drinking and violence. A world where you could go out without locking your door and you knew all your neighbours. Having said that the 70’s had more than its fair share of problems like football hooliganism, women treated as second class citizens and a host of other social ills. But it’s sad that while in a lot of ways we’ve become more tolerant, understanding, technologically advanced and supposedly civilised, when I look around and read the news I can’t help but feel that in my lifetime society has never been more fractured, terrified, lawless, selfish and politically correct to the point of madness.

My Dad Aged 32 And Me Aged 34 (I must do something about that ghostly glow I have)

I often wonder what would happen if I went back in time to the early 70’s, met my father and told him what life was going to be like by the time I was his age. What would he think? Would he believe me? And would I want to go back to it? I’m not sure I would. If nothing else with my fondness for flowery shirts I’d fit right in!

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The Days When The River Tay Used To Freeze Over

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I’m only in my early thirties but already within my lifetime I’ve seen marked changes in the climate. I grew up in a little village called Wormit (and then latterly in a slightly bigger village next door called Newport) on the river Tay. At this point the river is just under 2 miles wide. It’s a proper, fast flowing river and many people have been swept to their deaths in it over the years.

And yet, when I was a lad I used to get woken up in the Winter by the noise of huge blocks of ice bashing into each other as they creaked their way down the river. My dad took a photo one Winter morning of the ice flows which you can see below (note the chunks of ice in the middle distance and that Dundee is lost in cloud):

Ice Flows In The River Tay

Today a mere 20 years later people would think me crazy if I suggested the river froze in Winter. You’d be lucky to see a flake of snow anywhere near the place. I remember the local schools having to close as a result of heavy snowfall and we’d sit watching the cars spinning off the road at that corner by our house (see above). Nowadays? The Winters are so mild that neither is an option.

Scotland used to have several thriving ski resorts and yet now the season is shorter, some of the resorts don’t open at all and the amount of snow is a fraction of what it was. The Winters just aren’t cold or sustained any longer and it’s happened in only a few years.

When I visited New Zealand in 2003 it was amazing to see pictures of the Franz Josef glacier as it had been just a century earlier and know that the car park a couple of miles from the glacier was covered by the glacier only a few decades earlier. Glaciers the world over are melting and ski resorts across Europe (for example) are seeing shorter seasons year on year. While periods of warm and cold are cyclical over time the years since the 1980s have seen rapid glacial melt well beyond anything predicted by scientists based on historical records.

Whether you believe that global warming is real and exacerbated by humans or whether it’s a government conspiracy used as a stick to beat tax payers with (or are somewhere in between), the fact remains that we’re coming out of an ice age earlier than expected and it’s looking increasingly likely that within my lifetime the polar ice cap may disappear completely in the summer months – consigning polar bears among other animals to history.

We have short lives and therefore a very short-term view of the world in which we live. But in that short time the world’s climate is changing, extinctions are at a level higher than at any time in the past and in geological timescales these changes are happening in an instant instead of a long time.

I often wonder what archaeologists a million years in the future looking at the fossil records would think. I suspect they’d wonder if some global catastrophe occurred in the same way we’ve wondered why the dinosaurs died out. My concern is that they’d be right. And that the catastrophe was us.