Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Poetry Corner...

Poetry, I hear you ask?

Haiku, to be precise - I got a thing called 'Haikubes' for Christmas, where you get 63 cubes with words on, and have to make a haiku out of the top faces when they're thrown.

There are two cubes that can offer a theme for your verse, but I haven't got to that level yet.

Here are my first two efforts:

Haiku #1:

"No friendly shape;
Happy tiger;
Life journey over."

Don't ask me...

Haiku #2:

"Eyes following me -
Moonlight whispers;
I quickly mature."

There was nothing to suggest cherry blossom or snow softly falling - I'm told these are essentials in ay good haiku, if only to use up syllables.

Further research is indicated...

Monday, 29 December 2014

From the Vault: Breakfast In Dublin, Lunch In Monaco...


(Note: This was supposed to have been posted sometime in 2007/08, with photos, but I forgot. So let's wind the clock back 7 years - to the Twilight Zone...)

That was my weekend, anyway.

It's something we do where I work; we figured out it was less expensive to go abroad for a Christmas party than it was to have one at home, so midway through the year the 'committee' sits and picks options.

The first year, we went to Madrid, which cost us about €50 a head less for flights and two nights' board than one night in Kilkenny City (transport not included).

The following year, Munich.

Last year, Amsterdam.

This year, Nice.

This year there were ten of us, and we flew out on Friday morning in high winds and rain, arriving two and a half hours later in bright, cloudless sunshine and temperatures of about 18C (any Fahrenheit heads out there, you know what to do).

The plane flew down along the coast, as if announcing our arrival, then banked sharply before turning back to land at Nice airport. Luggage was on the carousel as we walked into the baggage area; passport control barely gave us a second glance, let alone a first.

Three taxis and ten minutes later, we arrived at the Westminster Hotel, Promenade Des Anglais.

After checking in, we arranged to meet up in the bar before heading out later for dinner. Generally speaking, we look for a restaurant specializing in local cuisine one night, with our second night being more casual. Friday night we had a reservation at Le Tire Bouchon, a short distance away by foot, at 8pm.

Anyhow, we met up and sat outside on the terrace, drinking Heineken beer and watching the jetliners come in along the coast. The sun gradually sank into the sea, a ball of molten gold in a cobalt ocean, and we headed out for dinner about 7 o'clock.

It was just as well we left early - although I had nothing to do with it (see my adventures in Berlin and Rome), we got lost. We asked for directions from some local people, but misunderstood 'keep to the left' as 'turn to the left' on one occasion, which just made things worse.

We were about to give up and take our chances with another establishment when we decided to explore fifty meters farther down a street we'd already been halfway along, and found what we were looking for.

The food and service couldn't be faulted; I had quail as a starter, followed by salmon baked in cabbage leaves on a bed of avocado and onion. With an apple-and-red berries crumble as dessert, followed of course by coffee, I have to say I haven't eaten so well in weeks. My friends and colleagues enjoyed their meals equally well, and we spent a good three hours and €500 doing so, including a healthy tip for our hostess (who bore an uncanny resemblance to actress Greta Scacchi). 


(Note: One of the lads returned with a friend a couple of weeks ago and went back to the same restaurant - sadly, he didn't enconter 'Greta').

Afterwards, we went in search of a bar and found an Irish joint called 'Ma Nolan's' in the Market district of Vieille Nice.

Here's the thing - in Ireland, there's a total ban on smoking in enclosed public places. You want to smoke, you go outside. It's been in force a couple of years now, and people have gotten pretty much used to being able to breathe in bars again.

In France, there's no such ban, so when we walked into Ma Nolan's we walked into a cloud that even the smokers among us had trouble with. We stayed for one drink and moved on, some to another venue, some back to the hotel.

Saturday, and Monaco.

The tiny principality, home to millionaires, their money and their yachts, is twenty minutes down the coast by train. Deciding it would be rude not to visit, we did so.

Monaco is an amazing place. It's built on (and possibly in) a mountain, and everything in it reeks of style and money.





We walked down from the train station towards the harbour, then up to the Royal Palace. A steep climb, but worth it. The place was so picturesque and almost clinically clean, it put me in mind of Lord Farquad's castle in Shrek.

The palace guard challenged a British tourist who wandered too close to the gates, proving he wasn't just there for show and the idiot, who either failed to understand or chose to ignore the challenge, was ushered away quietly by a gendarme before he could be shot.

After the palace we wandered down to the harbour, where there was a Christmas market.

 
Being Monaco, the local council did it in style, turning an Olympic-sized swimming pool into an ice rink, and building snow runs for the kids to ski or ride snowmobiles. The snow brought the temperature to near freezing, so we stayed long enough for a quick lunch before going on our way.

Traveler's hint: If you are planning a visit to Monaco (and I do recommend it) be aware that there are public escalators to save you having to walk too far uphill. Classy or what? Fortunately we found them as we were heading back to the station - if we hadn't, I doubt anyone would have had the energy to go out for dinner that evening.

Back in Nice, we went out for pizza. Our waitress took orders for ten starters, ten pizzas and drinks, all without a notepad. If the order came out perfect, she'd deserve a decent tip.

She got the drinks right, and eighteen of the other twenty items - there was one mistake with a starter, and a pizza that didn't arrive (and when it did was undercooked because they rushed it), but nobody's perfect. After a brief renegotiation of the bill, we found a little French bar with an outdoor tent and heaters, and settled in with a few beers.

There was a Celine Dion song playing on the stereo, but we toughed it out, even when one of a party of French people began to sing along with it. Her lack of talent was matched only by her unbridled enthusiasm, and we almost applauded when she had finished.

The bar closed at 2a.m., and we wandered back to the hotel, where someone opened some vodka. I got to bed at about 4 and don't remember falling asleep (Just tiredness - honest).

And that was more or less it - except for getting stuck on the Ferris wheel with Therese and Jennifer, an unexpected visit from President Sarkozy and 'near-death by running club' (narrow escape there), all in all it was a 'Nice'* weekend...


*I know - sorry...

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Longmire...


I learned today, with no small amount of relief, that Netflix has picked up Longmire for a fourth, 10-episode season.

Originally aired by A&E (apparently it doesn't mean 'Accident & Emergency), the network inexplicably cancelled it following the third-season finale, despite consistently-high ratings. Season Three (it hasn't aired here yet) apparently ended on a cliffhanger, so it'd be a shame not to see how things play out for Walt and Absaroka County.

I first became aware of the Longmire character about a year ago, while visiting Canada and short of something to read. In a Toronto bookstore I happened upon a copy of Craig Johnson's 'The Cold Dish', and was hooked.

For the uninitiated, the stories follow the exploits of Walt Longmire, sheriff of (fictional) Absaroka County, Wyoming; a man recovering from the untimely death of his wife and having to deal with re-election and the day-to-day management of law and order in his territory.

The setup is not unlike Ace Atkins' character of Quinn Colson, a returning US Army Ranger who becomes sheriff of his own home county following the suicide of his uncle, the previous sheriff, although neither can be said to be taking from, or even confused with, the other.

It was upon reading the Longmire novels that I discovered that it was being developed for TV, with Australian actor Robert Taylor taking the lead, and backed up by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) as Deputy Victoria "Vic" Moretti, a former Philadelphia PD homicide detective; Cassidy Freeman (Smallville) as Cady, Walt's daughter, Lou Diamond Phillips (Stargate:Universe) as Henry Standing Bear, owner of the Red Pony Bar and Walt's oldest friend; and Peter Weller (Robocop hisself!), as retired Sheriff, Lucian Connally.

And although some characters were at odds with their description in the narrative, or created simply for the TV version, the casting was, for me, spot-on, with Taylor especially seeming to have stepped out of the pages and onto the screen. I will, of course, watch Katee Sackhoff in anything.

A character created for the show is that of Deputy Branch Connally (Bailey Chase), nephew of the former sheriff, Walt's friend and mentor, Lucian (Peter Weller). Branch is young and eager, and wants to bring policing in Absaroka into the digital age; this places him at odds with Walt, who believes in the more traditional approach. The pair are frequently seen at loggerheads, but Walt sees something in Branch that tells him he'll make a good Sheriff - someday.

An overarching storyline within the series is the investigation into the murder of the man suspected of the murder of Walt's wife in Denver, with evidence leading ambiguously to both Walt and Henry, and a seemingly-relentless detective on the case, unwilling to let go.

I haven't seen Season Three yet, but I'd hate for a series as good as this one to simply drop off the radar - so thank you Netflix!

And on we go...


Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Holidays Are Coming...

November is fast becoming history, and December will be upon us in a matter of tick-tocks.

Starting Monday, I have a four-day project to upgrade my company's backup and recovery application, and then the shopping can begin.

This will be the first year in about fifteen that I will not be on call over the holiday period, and the first in about five years where I'll be able to take the whole holiday off, so I'm actually looking forward to it for a change, if only for the rest.

As I will have mentioned previously, I don't particularly enjoy Christmas. Of course, there's Christmas dinner with family and visits to (and by) friends, but the holiday itself leaves me with a sense that something's missing. I have my own ideas about that, and won't burden the regular reader, but the feeling hasn't diminished over the years, and so I generally just put my head down and make a charge for January.

I also still have several days' leave to take (three-and-a-half, if anyone's counting) plus a flexi-day (bonus time worked), so I'll have time for a bit of Christmas shopping and people-watching. For the last couple of years, I've taken to visiting a pub in Dublin called 'The Old Stand', which has a large window looking out onto a four-way junction in the heart of the centre of town.

Armed with a pen and a (cheekily overpriced)  pint, I sit for an hour (or even two) watching people go by, wondering what's going on in their minds, what their stories might be.




In some ways it's like being in an Edward Hopper painting, only on the inside, looking out...

Last year, I watched as, among others:
  • The CEO of my company went past, carrying a plastic shopping bag and checking a list or similar as he did his shopping; 
  • A group of four young women, laden with shopping bags and unable to agree on where to go next, who went into Butler's Chocolate Café for a coffee while they decided; and 
  • A young couple, reluctantly going their separate ways, finding reasons to delay taking their leave of each other. There was a brief exchange, then each produced a cellphone, no doubt to exchange details. It struck me that they hadn't known each other more than a number of hours.But then the time came to part - it was like something out of 'Brief Encounter'.

Ah, holidays...



Saturday, 25 October 2014

Stand By For Action!!!



As a child, I was something of a TV addict (I blame my father for sitting me down in front of 'Batman' when I was about 4). I loved adventure shows; 'Champion the Wonder Horse', 'Lassie', 'Skippy' (featuring a young Liza Goddard ); and more grown-up programs like 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.', 'The Saint' and so on.

Then of course, there was Doctor Who, a show I watched without really understanding until Jon Pertwee took over from Patrick Troughton, who I always thought was silly with his tin whistle.

Star Trek came along later, and some of my fondest memories are of sitting with my dad on a Monday evening and watching an episode on BBC1 (without commercials!). I recall he was scornful of the Horta in "The Devil in The Dark", and the flying parasites in "Operation:Annihilate!"

"You can see the strings!", he'd laugh, but we both enjoyed it anyway.

Which brings me neatly to the point, nay, the meat of this article, for throughout my childhood, my favourite shows were those that featured the logo "Filmed in SuperMarionation" and were produced by Gerry Anderson's APF Productions or, later, Century 21.

Stingray, Thunderbirds, Joe 90 (a favourite then, but less so now) and Captain Scarlet - all of these brought 30 minutes, or in Thunderbirds case, an hour of non-stop action, edge-of-the-seat adventure, incredible explosions, daring rescues, knife-edge suspense and a little humour injected in just the right places. Using puppets. And you could see the strings.



For me, the strength of the stories made one forget that the players weren't human, so the strings didn't matter. The mechanics of the vehicles, buildings that retracted or sank into the earth, all of these fascinated me. I could watch Zero-X be assembled twice...

What crystallised it all, of course, was the music, all of which was composed by Barry Gray.

A long-time collaborator of Anderson's, Gray produced elaborate scores for the various shows, with strong, dramatic themes and incidental pieces arranged for orchestras of anything up to 60 instruments, predominantly strings (an in-joke, perhaps?) and brass.

Gray's compositions stood out by being almost characters in their own right; the music treated the material as though it were regular, prime-time adult drama and not part of a children's production. This, in the era of ITC classics like The Saint and Danger Man, was important in that it meant (to me, anyway) that the producers of Thunderbirds and Stingray were treating their audience with the same importance as those of the live-action shows.

This, as much as the strength of the material, conspired to make me a TV addict.

I remain unrepentant.

And to this day, the music of Barry Gray can be found on my phone's MP3 player in the form of a playlist to which I return regularly, especially when I need to concentrate my mind on a task or de-stress.

They don't make them like this any more...




Saturday, 4 October 2014

Any Star Trek Fans Out There???

If so, you might (if you haven't already) want to have a look at this:



The full movie is in pre-production - I'm more than a little excited about it...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

For The Good of My Health: Part Two...

Last Thursday, I visited the Dublin Neurological Institute as what I hoped would be the final part of my investigations into the health-related episodes I encountered earlier this year.

My appointment was for 3:15pm, which gave me time to take a guided tour of my home city, to see what the tourists see (more of which later).

Arriving at the DNI's premises on Eccles Street, opposite the Mater Hospital (Best Care Anywhere - trust me on this), I checked in and was shown to a well-lit, brightly decorated waiting room that contained, unbelieveably, a baby grand piano. Although not in use while I was there, I was assured that occasionally a volunteer or member of staff would play, and that most patients appeared to like it. Fair enough, although I doubt I would have been one of them.

The room was full; about a dozen people, some by themselves, others with a friend or family member, all waiting to be seen by a neurological specialist. For myself, I wasn't worried: I had already learned that my CT and MRI scans had come back clear, and that blood pressure and cholesterol were my immediate issues. But the subject of neurology covers a wide field, and so it was possible that my fellow patients were awaiting diagnoses of other, potentially more serious conditions.

A lady, perhaps in her seventies, sat by the window. Accompanied by her daughter, she displayed a slight tremor that I mistook for nervousness, but upon reflection could have been Parkinson's.

A couple in their late sixties; the husband, asleep on one of the large leather sofas along the opposite wall; his wife, evidently troubled by back pain, unable to get comfortable on either the sofa or any of the hard wooden chairs. When they were called, I couldn't tell which of them was the patient.

A young couple, he Irish, she Polish, sat quietly at one end of the room. They were called shortly before I was, and I met them halfway down the stairs as I was being led to my meeting. They embraced quietly, and I can only hope that it was due to having received good news.

I was called by a young woman who introduced herself as Adrianna, and who led me to a small examination room in the basement. After taking my blood pressure to compare it with other readings, we discussed my case and an action plan.

Firstly, Adrianna confirmed what I already knew - that my scans showed no irregularities, other than what she termed "normal wear and tear" - not an expression I ever expected to be used in conjunction with my brain. And while she were satisfied that what had sent me to A&E in the first place may well have been stress-related, Adrianna felt that my chances of a stroke or heart attack were not high. It was up to me, however, to keep things that way.

So I have to work on my general fitness and diet, and keep taking the meds prescribed for me - they, apparently, are for life, not just for birthdays...

We also discussed the possibility that the pressure in my head, combined with loss of feeling, blurred vision, etc., might be due to migraine. I had seen a poster in the waiting room which described the symptoms of migraine, many of which tallied with what I had been feeling, and indeed what prompted me to seek further investigation.

Migraine does not necessarily involve a piercing, blinding headache, which previously I had believed, but can also produce effects as shown in this video produced by the Mayo Clinic:

While my symptoms don't include the visual element, I have experienced many of the other effects, so it was a relief to learn that it isn't all in my head after all - sorry, that it is all in my head... you get the picture.

Joking aside, though, this diagnosis will in itself help to reduce my stress levels. Now that I know what's happening to me, I can start taking steps towards taking control of the situations in which stress can become a factor. Chief among these will be in work, where a reassessment and reorganization of my responsibilities will be among the first tasks I begin following my return from vacation, the week after next.

Shouldn't be too difficult - I am, after all, The Mightiest of Men...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Doctor Who - Robot of Sherwood...

Tonight's episode saw The Doctor and Clara travel back to 1190-ish Nottingham in an effort to meet Robin Hood, Clara's childhood hero, someone whom the Time Lord claims is 'made up'.

Arriving in a leafy forest, they indeed meet the legendary Outlaw of Sherwood Forest (Tom Riley) and his, ah, 'Merry Men', much to Clara's delight.

But if there is a Robin Hood, there must also be an evil Sheriff of Nottingham, in this instance played by a suitably-bearded Ben Miller (Death in Paradise), there to subdue the peasants in the name of Prince John (not appearing in this picture). With an army of robot knights.

The episode covers many of the elements of the legend, with Riley's Robin played very much in the Errol Flynn mode, and Miller's Sheriff reminiscent of Alan Rickman in Prince of Thieves. There's an archery tournament, a castle rescue, a duel or two, and a lot of laughter and thigh-slapping. To say any more would be to spoil it for those who have yet to see it, so I'll simply share this image:


Plenty of laughs, a lot of running around, and Clara as a Saxon Princess - what more could anyone want?

Next week: Something under the bed is...?

At Last...

Yesterday, I finished what has been one of the most action-packed weeks of my recent career in preparation for a two-week vacation that will hopefully cure my stress levels, if only for a short time.

I've also taken myself off of the on-call rota for a while, if not indefinitely. It means a pay cut, but I think the tradeoff for a proper night's sleep is worth it.

How on-call works is that, one week in four, I have to be available 24/7, Friday to Friday, for any IT-related emergencies that might arise. Fair enough, you say, how many calls are you likely to get in a given period, and surely it's money for (practically) nothing?

There's that, of course, and I'd be lying if I said that being on call hasn't, in the past, provided me with a reason to avoid the occasional social event I might have felt uncomfortable attending. And in the earlier years, this was very much the case.

But now, as I've gotten older, I appreciate social contact and cherish my free time, so I've grown to resist anything that might interrupt my so-called life.

My health has also taken a hit, however, mostly from stress, something I don't deal well with (It's one thing being an interplanetary hero with powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary mortals, but when you have to hold down a day job and deal with politics and personalities as well...).And since when I'm on call I don't sleep much, well, something had to change.

I had a chat with Dave, my team leader, a while back - he noticed that I was having trougle dealing with something and wanted to make sure things were okay.we discussed what was going on, my health concerns and the stresses I felt I was under, and he said something to me that I hadn't considered:

"You put too much of yourself into your work, Bob."

Dave's a good guy; I've worked with him for nearly twenty years at this stage and consider him a friend, and value his opinion.

And maybe he's right.

I used to enjoy my work. Data backup and recovery might'nt sound the most interesting of subjects, but I think of it in terms of a logistics exercise; I have x amount of data to be written to y number of tapedrives in z hours. The schedule is ever-changing as clients are added or removed, and resources are limited, so it's a challenge; and I'd think nothing of staying back in the evening to finish something or going in for an hour or two at weekends. I still do, but not so much.

Storage administration is my secondary speciality, one I have less time than I would like to spend suitable time on.

But I do my best with it, and I'm good at what I do.

What I don't enjoy is work that I'm not good at, don't have training or background in, or being in a position where someone might have to depend on me to solve a problem in one of those areas, something that's happening on a more-frequent basis than before.

So I guess I've been internalizing a lot of frustration lately, because the cracks have been starting to show, and I may well have been headed for some sort of episode, which hopefully will not now be the case.

So I'm going to relax and chill, maybe blog a bit, see if I can't start to write that book I've been tallking about, that sort of thing.

Let's see how I get on...

Sunday, 24 August 2014

I Need A Holiday...

Last Wednesday, I almost destroyed the company payroll system.

This was not my intent; indeed, I was assisting the application support team with their annual disaster recovery test by restoring a copy of their live database to their test environment. However, when the files were restored in error to the live server, there was potential for database corruption, since it was open and in use at the time.

The irony would be apparent even to Sheldon Cooper.

Fortunately, the files restored to a parallel directory structure, so no harm was done, but the fact that I made such a rookie mistake is testament to the fact that I need a holiday. As usual (and it's my own stupid fault), I've worked without significant downtime since January, and that, combined with some health issues, has culminated in a degree of stress that I need to address.

I have a system upgrade this week, then two more the following week. I'm going to take them as they come, then take a couple of weeks off.

I might even get away for a couple of days (somewhere)...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Robin Williams, Your Table's Ready...

Robin Williams died the other day.

Even now, it seems wrong to have written those words. I mean, this is Robin Williams, FFS* - the man's lived so many lives he's got to be immortal.

Doesn't he?

Genie, Patch Adams, Walter Finch, Andrew Martin, Adrian Cronauer, John Keating, Popeye, Armand Goldman, President Eisenhower, Peter Pan, King of The Moon (!), Perry, Eupheginia Doubtfire (the name alone deserved an award), Teddy Roosevelt, Sean Maguire, Mork.

He had the ability to mix humour and pathos in just the right amounts; he could make you laugh so hard you'd cry, or cry until, finally, there would be a laugh.

Like many people, Mork & Mindy was the show that introduced - no, make that 'unleashed' the comic genius of Robin Williams onto an unsuspecting audience. The character's charm was his naivete and complete guilelessness, and his weekly reports to Orson were witty, if sometimes poignant, observations on life and the highlights of humanity.

I read somewhere among the many tributes in the press today that the writers on the show couldn't keep up with Williams's sheer creative energy, and would just leave gaps in the script so that he could ad-lib. I can't imagine what it must have been like to try to keep up with him on the set.

He made the move, naturally enough, to movies and found roles that gave him a chance to develop his dramatic abilities while still allowing him to use his manic comedic talent. He played doctors and teachers, and, in a curious sense was both a doctor and a teacher, healing our hearts and our souls while teaching us how to just let go and enjoy the things life has to offer.

I especially enjoyed his impression of Elmer Fudd, and recall his saying in an interview that he wanted to make an album of Bruce Springsteen songs in Elmer Fudd's voice. Then he sang 'Fire'. I fell off the sofa laughing.

And yet sadly, as happens to so many of those gifted with the ability to entertain, the spectre of depression was never far, and finally took him from the world to which he had given so much joy.

There are so many tributes being paid to this incredibly talented man, with many people posting quotes and videos by which to remember Robin Williams, but I found this clip on Youtube, posted by Jen Luckey Dancel and I thought I might share it:


Thank you for the tears and the laughter, sir - NaNu, NaNu...


*not his actual title...

Monday, 4 August 2014

Star-Lord? Never Heard Of Him...

This evening, a Bank Holiday Monday in Ireland, I went with my nephew to see Marvel Studios' latest release, "Guardians of The Galaxy."

Here is a brief, spoiler-free synopsis:

Peter Quill is a ten-year-old boy whose mother lies dying. In his grief he runs from the hospital, only to be confronted by an alien spaceship, which abducts him.

Fast-forward 22 years: Quill, by now grown, is a Ravager - a sort of Indiana Jones-type character - who recovers artifacts for money. His latest acquisition, an orb of unknown properties, promises to yield a sizable sum, so he decides to cut his partners (led by Michael Rooker) out of the deal and go, ah, Solo (see what I did there?). The only problem is, Quill is also an asshole.

Others want the orb also, however, and their agent (Zoe Saldana quite recognizable in Orion green) tackles Quill as he visits his buyer. Quill's partners have put a bounty on him also, and a couple of bounty hunters, a sentient raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and an ambulatory tree called Groot (Vin Diesel) attempt to intervene, as does a revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer (professional wrestling star Dave Bautista). All five are captured and imprisoned, and with Rocket's genius, they plan their escape.

The adventure, far from beginning here, actually began half an hour earlier, and doesn't let up for the entire length of the movie. Chris Pratt is excellent as Quill, or as he would like to be called, "Star-Lord", and the chemistry between him and co-star Saldana is believable and effective. Rocket and Groot aren't simply there for comic relief - everybody, even Drax gets a chance to play for a few laughs.

As my nephew commented, it's a long time since a movie like this has had such a good balance of action and comedy. The story sets itself up nicely for a sequel or two, which I for one and Mitch for another will be eager to see.

Here's the trailer - do not miss this movie...


Oh, and here's the other trailer:


And the soundtrack's cool too...

For The Good Of My Health...

So there I was, returning from vanquishing the latest Xylak outbreak while also having to deal with a case of Argonian 'flu and plan an integration workshop for some Pcinian Security officers on an exchange program, when suddenly I lost all feeling in my left side.

No loss of strength or ability, just a general feeling of numbness. It passed after about twenty minutes, and I resolved to seek medical attention if it happened again.

Fast-forward a week: It happens again.

Sort of. I was having a stressful time in my day job, and on this particular Tuesday afternoon, things were out of control. Trying to deal with a half-dozen things at once, I suddenly developed a pain in my upper left arm, coupled with a sense of numbness in my left hand.

That did it for me so I excused myself from duty and, after a brief stop at my apartment to gather some essentials, headed for the nearest A&E department, fortunately only a short distance away.

3:00PM:
Arrived at the Mater Hospital's Emergency Dept. I check in with Reception, noting that it isn't particularly busy, and I am seen by a triage nurse after a short time. I explain what I am experiencing, she takes an ECG and checks my blood pressure and other vitals, and I am sent back out to the waiting area while the results were processed. Having expected this, I had come prepared, so I take out my book and settle in for the inevitable wait. Since I'm not in immediate danger or distress, this is likely to be some time; however I am renowned for my patience.

4:30PM:
My name is called, this time by a young woman who introduces herself as Roisín and who leads me to a treatment area for further testing.

As she does so, another patient, whose name is Gary, becomes impatient that his name isn't being called, but Roisin gently but firmly tells him they have to wait for his rest results to come back, so he'll be seen as soon as they are available. I don't think he hears - Gary is a little high.

In the treatment bay, Roisin goes through my details - the hospital is fastidious about records - and I describe what's going on with me. I explain that I had suffered no cognitive or other deficiencies as part of my symptoms, and she performs some reaction tests to see whether any have since developed.

I will admit to perhaps misunderstanding one or two of her instructions, albeit not at the time, which may have coloured her diagnosis somewhat, because she tells me she wants to confer with a colleague before deciding on a course of treatment. I joke that I'm not going anywhere, but I am the only one who smiles.

After a short time Roisín returns and says that she has ordered up a CT scan for me, which would happen as soon as they could get a radiographer on-site. For that, I'll need a line in my arm, through which a dye would be fed into my bloodstream to, ah, light me up. She hooks me up on the spot; I don't feel a thing.

Then it's back out to the waiting area and my book. Gary is wandering about, talking to people as if they were old friends. A World Cup match is playing on a TV, but I can't get interested in it, so I stick to the printed page. Thinking back on it now, I can't recall what the book was called nor the name of the author - it may come to me later...

6:00PM
I decide to phone my parents to let them know where I am; and, while I don't want them to drop everything and rush to my side (I am the Mightiest of Men, after all), that's more or less what they do, arriving about fifteen minutes after my friend and office colleague Gerry is brought in by ambulance, having been the victim of an assault on his way home from work an hour previously.

With his head bandaged, shirt stained with blood, he is surprised when I ask,

"What the hell happened to you?"

After a double-take, and a "What are you doing here?", we swap stories and sit in for the wait. Gerry has a bandage on his head from where his assailant had struck him, presumably with some sort of object in his hand. The EMTs, called by police on the scene, had patched him up before bringing him to A&E for treatment and possible stitching, but as he wasn't in immediate danger he went on the waiting list with everyone else, while life (but not death) went on around us.

7:00PM
My parents arrive - they remembered Gerry from a party we were all at the previous year, and we spend the next few hours in conversation. Gary continues to wander about the place talking to anyone who makes eye-contact. He offers my mum a can of Coke, which she politely declines, then wanders away.

10:00PM
No sign of my radiographer or Gerry's stitch-up artist (or Gary's test results, for that matter), so I suggest that my parents go home, that I'll be fine and that Gerry and I can probably share a taxi home, he living only a short distance away from me. My dad says he'd be back for us, and takes Mum home.

Ten minutes after he left, I am called for my CT scan; at almost the same moment, Gerry is called into the treatment area. Talk about timing...

I've had my head stitched before (many years ago: I was ten) so I won't talk about it here; however I've never had a CT scan before so this is new territory even for me. It isn't what I'd expected; I figured I'd be inserted into a machine similar to the one that turned Dr. Banner into The Hulk, but this is nothing like that.

The radiographer notes the line in my arm and hooks up a bag of clear fluid which he explains is dye. He also explains that it would produce in me a warm feeling that might make me think I had, ah, urinated, but that that would not be the case.

Easy for him to say - I've been holding it in for a half-hour and was about to go for a pee break when he came to get me.

The test is short and painless, and after about fifteen minutes I am back outside to wait for the scan results. Dry, I hasten to add.

Gerry has returned also; seemed that his wound won't take a stitch, so they're going to use glue instead. I had heard of soldiers in the field using superglue to close a wound, but am surprised it has become part of standard treatment. But you live and learn, I guess.

11:30PM
Back into treatment area again - this time where I speak with a doctor who introduces himself as Aongus and wears odd socks, something that I notice but don't comment upon.

He tells me that my CT scan is clear, and shows no signs of TIA, or Transient Ischaemic Attack, which the layman will interpret as a Stroke warning. We go through the same tests as Roisín had done earlier, and I suggest that I may have misunderstood one or two of her instructions.

We discuss my job and lifestyle; whether the job is stressful, etc, my diet, exercise and so on, and Aongus says he wants to send me for further tests as he feels the earlier incident (the numbness) points to something neurological, so he'd make some appointments and I'll be notified when and where to go.

In the meantime he is happy to release me; just needs to have the line taken out of my arm and give me a prescription for aspirin and I'd be all set. With that, he disappears, and I sit cooling my heels for a while until someone comes to remove the device and patch me up.

As I'm sitting there, trying (and failing) to get a phone signal, Gerry is ushered into the treatment bay next to mine, where he has his head glued by a pretty nurse and a fresh dressing applied.

We are both then released, whereupon leaving the treatment area we find the waiting area half-empty. It seems that one of Gary's friends (the amateur pharmacist) had brought along some contraband and was ejected by Security, followed by Gary, his other friends and the curious, wanting to see what transpired.

What transpired was a fight, resulting in several individuals not being allowed back inside and one or two arrested. Gary had sustained sufficient damage to warrant being patched up, so he was finally being seen to. We leave him to it and go outside, where my dad is waiting. He tells us about what had happened and then drivse us home, dropping Gerry off first before swinging back past my place.

I tell him about the tests, and how the doctor wants to schedule an appointment for an MRI and to speak with a neuro-vascular specialist, and we agree that I am a lucky man and should take things a bit easier. He also advises I take a day or two off, which I do not argue about.

He leaves me at my door; I go inside and collapse into bed.

It is 1:30AM...

What will happen next?

Tune in again for another exciting adventure!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Tin Star...

I must preface this post with a brief statement (for clarification purposes, you understand):

I really hate Country & Western music.

I've had long discussions with a friend and colleague over the years regarding this particular genre; Tony says that it's about "real things, happening to real people." These generally involve divorce, infidelity, drunkenness resulting in a spell in jail, having to shoot your dog, etc. In short, misery.

Okay, I know I'm oversimplifying things here - there is, I will admit, a complexity and deepness of meaning to all music that resonates with those who enjoy a particular style. For me, it's jazz. For some, death metal. But for me, C&W has and always will be the Music of Pain, and to quote Forrest Gump,

"That's about all I have to say about that."

But back to our story:

I was watching TV a while back,  channel-hopping during the damnable commercial breaks,  when I came across some sort of arts programme on the national broadcaster.
There was an interview with a young Canadian singer named Lindi Ortega, around which was shown a live performance of a song from her latest album,  "Tin Star".
It had a country flavour to it that ordinarily I steer clear of (see preface), but I was captivated by her voice and style - reminded me of Emmylou Harris with a touch of Dolly Parton (yes, I know who they are, Tony) and stayed with it before downloading the album on iTunes.

Here's why:

 (Video by Lindi Ortega / LastGangRecords)
Ladies and Gentlemen,  Ms. Lindi Ortega...

Sunday, 6 July 2014

These Are The Voyages...

When I was a kid, there was this secondhand bookstore near where I lived, where I used to find the most amazing things. More than books, the place sold American comicbooks, which were hard to get here in those days, but also science fiction novels, and especially Star Trek. I got most of the James Blish adaptations of TOS stories, as well as Alan Dean Foster's adaptations of the animated series episodes.

I also picked up a copy of the Starfleet Technical Manual and, unbelievably, a set of the Franz Joseph-designed plans of the Enterprise.

I used to wonder what it would take to build my own Bridge, a full, 360-degree set with stations and viewscreen; I had little concept of money in those days, but knew it wouldn't be cheap. And my imagination often outstripped my abilities when it came to building things, so I knew it was going to be little more than a pipedream.

But what if...?

And that's what it seems many other fans of Star Trek asked themselves, and then had a go at it, with varying results. From handheld video shot in someone's back yard, to more ambitious efforts using sets and props, culminating in professionally-produced episodes with full cast, sets and special effects in broadcast quality.

Initially, fans produced shows based on their own characters and ships, notably Starship Exeter and Starship Farragut, both sister ships of the TOS-era U.S.S. Enterprise, but focusing on their own crews rather than attempting to continue Kirk's adventures.

Sadly, Exeter only managed two complete episodes, the second of which ('The Tressaurian Intersection') languished in post-production limbo for several years awaiting completion, perhaps reflecting the inherent difficulties in raising capital to build sets, props, make costumes, rent facilities and equipment, etc.

Farragut's voyage was equally as ambitious, if more successful, with (to date) three episodes released and another due this summer. In addition, they've produced two animated episodes in the style of the 1973 Filmation series.

Numerous other projects exist, noble efforts all, but thus far, the two that stand out are James Cawley's Star Trek: Phase Two , with nine episodes completed, one on the way and another in production; and Vic Mignogna's Star Trek Continues, with three episodes available to view.

As with Exeter and Farragut, both shows are set in the Original Series era, working along the lines of "What if Season 4 had happened?" and every effort has been made to duplicate the 'feel' of the original, down to the smallest detail. Kickstarter has been a major factor in funding these projects, since they're not otherwise professionally financed, and the productions are permitted by the copyright owners on a not-for-profit basis. That probably means nobody gets paid (much)...

The results, however, speak volumes for their respective creators' love of the source work. Both Cawley (among other things, a successful Elvis impersonator in his day job) and Mignogna (actor/producer) star as James T. Kirk in their respective versions of the show, and both manage to carry the role without turning into 'Shatner impressionists'. Cawley, who had an uncredited role in JJ Abrams' 'Star Trek', has since handed over the role
of Kirk to Brian Gross, who will take the big chair for Phase II's next episode, "The Holiest Thing". Here's a trailer:

                                           (by startrekphase2DE via Youtube)


Star Trek Continues' latest episode focuses on the events following the conclusion of the TOS episode, "Mirror, Mirror". Entitled "Fairest Of Them All", it shows what happens in the Mirror Universe after Kirk, Scott, McCoy and Uhura manage to get back to their own reality.

This clip is a shot-by-shot comparison of the final scene of "Mirror, Mirror" as recreated by Mignogna and his team:

                                         (by tommiph, via Youtube)

The scene forms the opening for the episode, and so feeds nicely into the proceedings.

And so now we have not one, but two groups dedicated to continuing the 5-year mission. Differences will be evident in the production styles and story types - Phase II has gone for serious drama, with little of the humour that would occasionally be seen in episodes featuring Harry Mudd or Tribbles, while also addressing social issues such as same-sex relationships.  

ST Continues, for its part, started with "Pilgrim Of Eternity", a sequel to "Who Mourns For Adonais?" featuring Michael Forest (reprising his role as Apollo from the original), then followed it with "Lolani", a thinly-disguised commentary on the continued existence of slavery.

I remain impressed by the dedication of the people who create these new adventures; their passion will ensure that the crew of the Enterprise will continue  "...to boldly go where no man has gone before..."

Ahead, Warp Factor Two...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Déja Vu All Over Again...

As I may have mentioned previously, I am a fan of crime fiction, especially detective novels in the Chandler style (or at least hovering around it).

To my mind, among the finest proponents of this style have been the late Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser series, and Loren D. Estleman, with his Detroit-based protagonist, Amos Walker.

Spenser, introduced in 1973 in The Godwulf Manuscript, has developed over the intervening 40-plus years, from a mid-thirties, Korean War veteran and ex-boxer into a sixty-something Korean War veteran and ex-boxer; and, with Parker's passing in 2010, the character seemed to stop aging altogether. This may have been as much due to the designs of Ace Atkins, the author selected to continue the bestselling series, than to any intent on Parker's part. Certainly for me there was always a sense that the character was aging in step with his creator (albeit at perhaps a 10-year remove), and so perhaps with Atkins's arrival it was seen as okay to, if not reboot the character, then at least inject a little more youthfulness into him and his world.

Gone are the references to Korea and fighting the famous "Jersey Joe" Walcott - now we simply accept that Spenser was at one time in the Service and boxed. The rest is all there, and Atkins's style sits so well on the page that one could imagine Parker's shade watching over his shoulder, ready to offer, ah, 'parently guidance'.

The stories are sharp, with more time given to the investigation at hand, and somewhat less to the Spenser-Susan relationship byplay that had become prevalent in Parker's latter novels. Pearl remains part of the cast; being a dog person, I have no problem with that.

The latest book in the series, Cheap Shot, sees the Boston P.I. approached by New England Patriots linebacker Kinjo Heywood, concerned about the possibility he's being stalked by persons unknown.

His own reputation for violent conduct having landed him on the wrong end of the media's interest in the past, Heywood hires Spenser to find and dissuade any would-be stalkers, despite objections from the Patriots' head of security and Heywood's own agent.

However, when Heywood's 7-year-old son Akira is kidnapped, Spenser and Hawk are quickly on the case, along with new protegé Zebulon Sixkill.

Scouring the city for clues to the whereabouts of the child, Spenser revisits old adversary Tony Marcus and encounters a new enemy in FBI agent Connor. When the boy's father decides to take matters into his own hands, it threatens to run the clock out before the veteran detective can save the day.

Another fascinating visit to Spenser's Boston, sharply written by Ace Atkins, Cheap Shot stands as a solid addition to the Spenser canon. Atkins once again perfectly captures Parker's 'voice', and I can't help but feel that the great man would be pleased that his character is in such good hands.

*********

I've been following the exploits of Amos Walker for so long that I feel I know Detroit like the back of my hand, despite my never having been there.

For me, it's a city that only exists at 3am, or on a wet Monday in February. It just has that feel to it, and no matter the narrative, I can't escape the image whenever Walker hits the streets.

However, this latest case left me feeling lost in warm sunlight...
:

:
:
From the moment I met Walker's client, Alec Wynn, I had a sense of déja vu. Not remarkable in itself; I get that a lot. But this was different - I had encountered this character before. Wife missing, only a note saying 'Don't look for me', no personal effects out of place - something about this case just didn't sit right.

Walker wasn't at his office when I visited, and I got past Rosecranz easily enough, never mind how. No prospective clients in the outer office meant I was free to try my luck on the inner door. It didn't give much trouble (what's there to steal in a P.I.'s office?) so I closed it quietly behind me and looked around.

Painting of
Custer's Last Stand on the wall - check; souvenir ashtray from Traverse City - check; safe with spare shirt, extra bullets and the good Scotch - check.

That left the filing cabinet. A three-drawer relic from the Age of Wood, it offered little resistance to a letter-opener and a lot of determination.

I checked the clock. I had plenty of time - Walker wouldn't be back for a year or so. Then I dug deep into his files.

After what seemed like a month, but was only about half an hour, I found what I was looking for.

Thee was no mention of international drug dealers; no hint that MOSSAD or their associates had any interest or that the cast fared about as well as the lineup in a Shakespearean tragedy. Just the story, brief and unremarkable, of a missing person.

Closing and re-locking the file drawer, I had to wonder whether Amos was starting to lose it - was this apparent dementia a legacy of his Vicodin issues, or were the powers that be setting him up for something?

Certainly from what I knew of the Wynn case (the second, not the first) it seemed that he was off his game. Rambling dialogue, with comments intended to provoke a punch or a bullet rather than develop a lead, the poor guy seemed more in need of a vitamin shot than a shot of Scotch.

Worked out in the end, though - same as it did the first time, only in a less satisfying way.

I took a last look around the office, used a handkerchief to wipe any prints I may have left, then let myself out, locking the door behind me.

I left the building, passing Rosecranz, asleep and snoring softly in his cubby, one eye open.

I smiled to myself; with Cerberus to watch the place, it's a sure thing that Walker would come to no harm.

I resolved to look in on him again, then flagged a cab for the airport and left the Motor City behind...


*********

"Don't Look For Me" (Amos Walker #23) is expanded from the short story called "I'm In The Book", originally published in 1986 for an anthology entitled "The Mean Streets" (Mysterious Press) and subsequently in the collection "General Murders" (Houghton Mifflin, 1988).




Friday, 14 March 2014

O Captain, My Captain...

Tomorrow evening, at approximately 7:30pm GMT, one of the greatest careers in International Rugby Union will come to an end, as Ireland and Leinster player Brian O'Driscoll finishes his 141st and final international match against France, against whom he played his first Test match in 2000.

On that occasion, at the age of 21, he scored three tries and helped the side to their first win in Paris since 1972. To put things in perspective, if Ireland win tomorrow, it will be their second win in Paris since 1972.

Now, at age 35,having been team captain, four times Lions member, Heineken Cup Winner and 6 Nations Grand Slam Winner, as well as having been acknowledged by his peers as one of the best footballers ever to have worn the Number 13 shirt, O'Driscoll lines out for his final Test, facing the country against whom he posted his debut hat-trick and Ireland's best result in 28 years.

France.

Courtesy of a fan, here's a, shall we say, 'précis' of BOD's career highlights:


Tomorrow I shall be watching with my father, pint of Guinness in hand, as possibly the greatest player of his or my generation takes the field for the final time.

I feel tremendously privileged to have seen him play.

Now if only we could retire George Hook...

Non-Stop...

(Note: I began, but failed to finish, this post before the events surrounding Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had taken place. I thought about deferring it but felt that the two incidents were sufficiently different in nature that I could proceed with posting.)

Having some time on my hands on Friday last, I went to see Liam Neeson's latest picture, Non-Stop.


For those who may have been off-planet lately (or deep within the Kingdom of the Molemen - they only allow the cinema of Uwe Boll), the story follows troubled US Air Marshal Bill Marks, who, while on a trans-Atlantic flight, receives a message from someone who says he'll kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless his demands are met, namely the transfer of $150 million into a Swiss account.

When the account turns out to be in Marks's name, he's deemed to be a hijacker by authorities, and with  no-one to trust but a passenger (Julianne Moore) and a flight attendant (Michelle Dockery), Marks has to deal with 150 potential suspects if he's to foil the criminal and save the aircraft and passengers.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who gave us the slick Eurothriller Unknown, also starring Neeson, Non-Stop delivers exactly what its name suggests - a suspense-filled thriller in which one is never certain what's a clue and what's a red herring.

Here's a trailer:


One has to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in one or two instances, but the payoff is worth it.

Neeson will return in "Run All Night", a third collaboration* with director Collet-Serra revolving around a retired hitman who's forced into a contract in order to save his family. Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman and Genesis Rodriguez co-star, and it's set for release in 2015.


*but not, it seems, with Joel Silver...

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Read and Reading - The Overflowing Bookshelf...

As I may have mentioned, I'm an avid reader, and am lucky to live within short walking distance of the largest bookstore in Ireland.

Which is probably just as well, given the amount of time and indeed money I spend there, and the often heavy load of material I carry away from the place.

The store is called, appropriately enough, Chapters, and has evolved from a small rented space on Dublin's South Side to its present location, a purpose-built premises on Parnell Street, in the North City Centre.

I mention this because, when on a recent trip to Toronto and in need of something to read, I found a bookstore called, coincidentally enough, Chapters, at the corner of John and Richmond Streets, next to the ScotiaBank Theatre.

I didn't realise at the time that this store was part of a so-called 'big-box' chain; indeed, it gave every bit the impression of being similar to the one in Dublin (albeit with a Starbucks on the premises). It's bright, with helpful staff, and you can have a coffee and read if your feet have been worn out from walking.

I bought three books:

Red Planet Blues, by Robert Sawyer, a neo-noir PI story set on (the name's a giveaway) Mars. The protagonist, Lomax, is Mars' only licensed private investigator, in the domed city of New Klondike where prospectors eke out a living attempting to uncover ancient Martian fossils outside in the wastelands.

Many elect to become Transfers, downloading their consciousness into an android replica (usually enhanced in some manner) that allows them to exist on the Martian surface without the need for an environmental suit. Like Pinocchio in reverse.

The McGuffin in this case is the "mother lode" of fossils discovered years previously by two explorers (but now lost following their untimely demise in a spaceship crash), and which everyone considers the Big Prize. Naturally skulduggery and double-cross abound, and our hero finds himself in one tight situation after another as he uncovers clues that lead him to the solution of who murdered the original explorers.

Originally a novella entitled "Identity Theft", Sawyer expanded the original story to tell a bigger tale, however for me the result was unsatisfying. Too many plot twists, reappearing characters, and changes in motivation made it difficult to warm to.

I made it to the end, but if a sequel appears, I won't be first in line..

Next, by Gordon Pinsent with George Anthony, is the autobiography (if one can say that where there was a collaborative effort) of one of Canada's foremost actors.

I first became aware of Mr. Pinsent when he appeared in the Canadian comedy drama Due South as Sgt. Bob Fraser, RCMP (deceased). Initially only supposed to appear in the pilot, reaction to the character was positive enough that the writers kept him in the show as a ghost, appearing to his son at certain moments to provide guidance or advice, not always useful.

 In Next, Pinsent writes about his life, from early childhood in Newfoundland, touching briefly upon military service before describing the beginnings of his career in acting; first, on the stage, then later on TV, working his way up from walk-ons to speaking parts, etc.

In terms of style it's very much as if he's recounting his anecdotes directly, in a tone that recalls the aforementioned Ghost of the RCMP.

In the course of the book, Pinsent drops enough names to cover a decent-sized living-room floor - the index runs to nineteen pages - but never (well, rarely) with a disparaging word for anyone.

A relaxed, sometimes poignant, but more often witty insight into a life on the boards.

The third and final book was The Cold Dish, by Craig Johnson, the first in his series featuring Sheriff Walt Longmire (played by Robert Taylor in the successful A&E TV show) of the fictional Absaroka County, set against the backdrop of Wyoming's High Plains country.

Initially involving the murder of one of four high school seniors acquitted of the rape of a local Cheyenne girl, the story, one of revenge, also serves to introduce the central character, his friends and co-workers and the country in which the stories are set. Indeed, the plains of Wyoming, the Bighorn mountains, Powder River, all are brought to life in the same vivid detail as Spenser's Boston, or the Los Angeles shared by Harry Bosch and Elvis Cole.

In the first book, Walt Longmire is the long-serving sheriff of Absaroka County, facing re-election as he approaches twenty-five years in the job. Widowed three years previously, and with a daughter in Philadelphia, he's still rebuilding his life and contemplating retirement. Friends Henry Standing Bear, a fellow Vietnam veteran; Victoria 'Vic' Moretti, his chief deputy, transplanted from Philadelphia PD, and former Sheriff Lucian Connally, with whom Walt plays chess, make up his core of close friends.

I picked up the book on impulse, having seen the TV series on cable here in Ireland, and was pleased to find it quite similar in tone to Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone series, with a light touch that brought to mind Parker's other character, Spenser. That being said, the two are entirely different in style, with Johnson's Longmire a far less introspective soul than either of Mr. Parker's creations.

The Cold Dish is the first of 10 novels in the series, which as yet I have been unable to find on this side of the Atlantic; happily, there's always Amazon, and I'm currently midway through Book Three. The series is a more-than-worthwhile effort, and I encourage anyone interested in crime fiction to give it a try.

And on we go...