Books: 2013

A record of the books I’ve read in 2013. Read:

  1. The Right Way to Do Wrong: A Unique Selection of Writings by History’s Greatest Escape Artist, by Harry Houdini [nf, pbk]
  2. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes [f, pbk, arc]
  3. The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman [f, pbk, arc]
  4. Racing Through The Dark: The Fall And Rise Of David Millar, by David Millar [nf, pbk]
  5. Railsea, by China Mieville [f, e]
  6. London Falling, by Paul Cornell [f, pbk, arc]
  7. Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway [f, e]
  8. Fade to Black, by Francis Knight [f, pbk, arc]
  9. From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming [f, e]
  10. Hokkaido Highway Blues, by Will Ferguson [nf, pbk]
  11. Red Army Faction Blues, by Ada Wilson [f, pbk]
  12. The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Tracey Chevalier [f, pbk]
  13. Poison, by Sarah Pinborough [f, hbk]
  14. The Fire Witness, by Lars Kepler [f, pbk, arc]
  15. Lexicon, by Max Barry [f, pbk, arc]
  16. World War Z, by Max Brooks[f, e]
  17. Game of Thrones [book 1], by George R.R. Martin [f, e]
  18. My Criminal World, by Henry Sutton [f, pbk]
  19. The Machine, by James Smythe [f, pbk]
  20. City of Blood, by MD Villiers [f, pbk]
  21. Bigger Deal, by Antony Holden [nf, pbk]
  22. The Jennifer Morgue, by Charles Stross [f, pbk]
  23. The Last Banquet, by Jonathan Grimwood [f, hbk]
  24. Solo, by William Boyd [f, hbk]
  25. The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch [f, e]
  26. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan [f, e]

Currently reading:

  • Moon’s Artifice, by Tom Lloyd [f, pbk]
  • The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes [f, e]

Didn’t finish:

  • The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson[f, pbk] (Not often I don’t finish a book that I’ve started, but really didn’t get on with this one.)

Key: f – fiction nf – non-fiction hn – hardback pbk – paperback e – ebook (probably read on Kindle) arc – review copy

Best of 2012

Time of one of those ‘Best of the Year’ posts.

Right. Erm… [thinks of things I’ve read/played/watched/listened to this year]

Book of the Year
Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan, by Mark O’Connell. A book about our favourite British superspy, James Bond. Not your traditional ‘here are the films in order and here’s what I think of them’, but instead a tale of a young man’s introduction to Bond via bank holiday tv viewings, trips to the cinema and lovingly re-watched VHS recordings hired from the local garage. Mark is a proper Bond geek, and his love for the films just bursts out of the pages. Part memoir of growing up, part tales of his grandfather as chauffeur to Cubby Broccoli and all Bond. Anyone with even a smattering of interest should read it. Inspired me to do a blog-a-long-a-Bond-a-thon next year. Cracking stuff.

Game of the Year
Skyrim
No contest. Yes, it came out last year, but I was late to the party. You know how I can tell it’s game of the year? Because I’ve played virtually nothing else. ALL YEAR. Minor foray into a replay of Modern Warfare 2, but Skyrim went back in every time. I’ve lost (and thoroughly enjoyed) every minute of the many many hours of gametime I’ve spent in Skyrim. I’ve not even completed the main quest as I got distracted wandering around exploring the incredibly detailed world. Plus my troll skull collection is now second to none. If only Farkas would stop tidying it up. I might have to divorce him if he carries on. The only thing which let it down was that EVERYONE in Skyrim seems to have lost something, and they’re all too lazy to go look for it themselves. It’s only twenty quid now. Go buy it.

Movie of the Year
Skyfall. I have written about this elsewhere, at great length. Buy me a coffee and I’ll go on at great length as to why this is the best Bond movie, with the best Bond, ever. Not just a great Bond movie, but a great movie in and of itself.

Album of the Year
Broadside, by Bellowhead. Glorious, plain and simple. Seen them play live twice this year, and each time was just brilliant. Check out their albums, but go see them live. Sheer infectious energy and joy from start to finish.

 

mince pies – a taste test

We’ve been conducting a mince pie survey over the past couple of weeks. I love mince pies, and someone on twitter (I think) said that their goal was always to try a dozen different mince pies each year.

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.
Let’s get the chaff out of the way first, shall we? Lagging at the back of the pack with a score of 2/5 we have:

  • Sainsbury’s standard mince pie
  • Co-op
  • Morrison’s
  • M&S puff pastry

A motley bunch. Surprised to see Sainsbury’s in there, but their pie filling was fairly bland and dull. Most surprising was the M&S puff pastry one – these looked AMAZING out of the box, big fat pies which looked like scones. Bite in though, and they were all air. The puff pastry was a bit… claggy too. Filling was nice, and when one pie top came off leaving a mince pie tart, they were quite nice. Lost points for being all puff and no pie.

Moving up a level at 3/5, we have this lot:

  • Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference (apparently you can!)
  • Sarah’s mum’s home-made mince pies (icing topped)
  • Waitrose
  • Mister Kipling

First home-made pie on the list there, with an icing topping – a bold move which worked (according to Sarah). I marked the Waitrose ones down as 2/5 as the pastry was really dry and the filling a bit sloppy. I was overruled though. Mister Kipling does exceedingly nice pies, apparently. The one I had was certainly better than most of the supermarket offerings and I’d give it 3.5/5

Now we’re getting serious, and moving into the big league. The four-star pies.

  • M&S cafe (crumble top)
  • Joanna’s homemade pies
  • Sainsbury’s baked in store
  • Cooplands brandy butter

The M&S cafe one was really rather nice. It was a tart-style pie, really thin pastry, a very tasty filling and a great crumble topping. Let down by costing £1.75, though you did get a dollop of cream to go with it. Another home-made pie in the list, great filling, nice pastry. Sainsbury’s baked in-store were very good, apparently, and at only a quid for four, good value. The Cooplands pie was very nice, and had a dollop of brandy cream on top of a tasty filling. Well worth a try, but twice the price of the Sainsbury’s ones.

And, last but by no means least, the only five star pie in the bunch.

Abel & Cole mince pie

I confess that I got this free with our veg box from Abel & Cole. It’s a small pie, but came beautifully boxed and was quite delicious. It had almonds and cognac in, and had by far the best taste of all the pies I’d tried. Great pastry too. They seem a bit expensive, at a fiver for 12, but when you look at something like the M&S puff pastry ones at £2.60 for six (and not very nice), they’re more than worth it.

Next year we’ll be a bit more organised and mark on pastry, filling, cost per pie etc. I can feel a colour co-ordinated spreadsheet coming on! I also planned to try some more indie shop pies, but haven’t managed to get that sorted.

So, have you tried any mince pies this year? Report back!

books – a cunning plan

coffee and a good book

I have a plan when it comes to books.

Stop looking so worried. It’s a good plan. Honest.

I’ve got a ton of unread books at home on my To Read pile[1]. I’ve got a similar number of unread books on my Kindle. I’m a sucker for a 3 for 2 offer, or a ‘buy one get one half price’, or a 99p kindle ebook deal, see?

So, I’m going to make a list. A list of all the unread books in my house.

Then I’m going to read them.

See? I told you it was a good plan.

I’m also going to be a bit ruthless about this – if there’s a book I’ve not read but, on reflection, am unlikely to read given the state of The Great Unread Book Mountain[2], I’m going to get rid of it. Charity shops will do well out of me.

I may pass some books along too. Books which I’ve read and enjoyed, but am unlikely to read again.

The second part of my cunning plan is to start reading more books which other people have recommended, but which I wouldn’t ordinarily have picked up. I’ve started a ‘to read’ list on Goodreads. I’m dakegra over there (surprisingly), feel free to add me to your list, and recommend me a book.

If you’re not on Goodreads, then feel free to recommend a book that you’ve particularly enjoyed recently. I’ll read as many as I can and review them here.

Also, if anyone wants to send me a book to review, just drop me an email. dakegra [at] gmail [dot] com. I like emails.

[1]the word ‘pile’ may be slightly misleading.
[2]ok, ok, it’s not an actual mountain. It is very big though[3]
[3]stop sniggering at the back[4]
[4]yes, you.

Sugru

I was sent a pack of sugru to review the other day. It’s pretty funky stuff – out of the packet it’s soft & pliable and feels a bit like blu-tack. You’ve got about 30 minutes to use it out of the pack and it cures in 24 hours, bonds to pretty much anything and turns into a flexible silicone rubber which is waterproof, heatproof (from -50°C to + 180°C) and really very strong.

The pack I got contained 8 mini foil packs of black sugru – according to the instructions it’ll last for six months at room temperature, longer if you keep it in the fridge). Cost via the website: £11 + shipping, or £1.37 per pack. You can get it in smaller packs too. The sugru store is here: http://sugru.com/buy

I decided to make some custom-fit earbuds, using my very cheap Philips earbuds – they were less than a tenner and a replacement for my beloved Shure SE115s until I can afford a decent replacement set. The Philips ones sound ok, but let outside noise in really badly (unlike the Shure buds).

The fix was pretty easy to do – roll back the outer rubber bit of the earbud, pop a bit of sugru behind, fold the rubber bit back over then stick the earbuds in your ear. Give it a wiggle to get a good fit, take the earbuds out and leave the sugru to set.

There’s a video on the Sugru website:

Tried them this morning, and whilst it’s not a perfect fit, it cuts out a significant amount of background noise, giving a much clearer sound. I might have another go and use a bit more sugru – I was a bit sparing with it, but the little individual packs hold a decent amount. 5g of sugru goes a long way!

I had some left over from the earbud fix, so decided to see what else I could use it for.

The locking ring on my Opinel pocketknife is metal, and can be pretty slippery if you’re trying to open the blade in the wet. I put a small band of sugru around the metal collar and used the back of a key to give it some ridges for extra grip.

Opinel penknife plus Sugru hack

Bonus is there’s now an extra grippy bit when you’re using the knife!

And one final hack using the last bit of the pack (and remember, this is all from one 5g packet), I added a little lump of sugru to the volume dial on my desktop PC speakers. The dial is black, with a tiny black dot indicating the volume you’ve got it set at. Pretty hard to tell how loud you’ve got it set.

Now it’s got a lump where the dot is (should have taken a photo really!) so I can see at a glance how loud the kids have turned up the speakers!
So, all in all, it’s pretty versatile stuff. I’m already looking at other things I can use it for around the house and garden, and the sugru site has some great hacks which I’ll be checking out.

Skyfall – a spoilery review

Right. Here’s my review of the new Bond film, Skyfall.

First, the short spoiler-free version.
Awesome.

What? You want more? Hmm. Keeping it spoiler-free:
The best Bond in the best Bond film, bar none.

Seriously? That’s not enough? Right. You asked for it. Warning, spoilers abound within.
*flexes fingers*

I was serious about the best Bond. I fully admit that I was nervous when I heard that Daniel Craig was going to be Bond, but within 30 seconds of Casino Royale starting, I was sold. By the time we hit the opening credits I knew we were in safe hands.

I *loved* Casino Royale, by the way. More of that another day. I even quite liked Quantum of Solace, though mainly due to Craig’s Bond.

(I’ve had several discussions with people over the ‘best’ Bond. Connery is the popular choice here, though I have a huge soft spot for the Moore era, as that was the Bond I grew up with. Lazenby is highly underrated and Dalton could have done so much better with a half-decent script. I loved Brosnan’s Bond, though not his Bond movies which were sub-par at best. Yes, even GoldenEye. And the least said about the invisible Aston the better. I mean, who on earth wants an invisible Aston Martin? They’re bloody gorgeous!)

Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes, Skyfall.

It was with a little trepidation that I sat down to watch Skyfall. Were we going to get another Casino Royale? Or another Quantum of Solace-esque mishmash of confused plot?

Again, within 30 seconds of Skyfall starting, I breathed a sigh of relief.The old gun barrel opening wasn’t there, but the way Bond appears, stealthily down a darkened passage only to pop into focus in an artfully placed shaft of light?

Bond is back. Properly back. The pre-title sequence is breathtaking, starting with a car chase, then bikes, bikes on rooftops, bikes on trains, diggers! On trains! Piling one thing on top of another, pressure upon pressure, just the way a good  Bond sequence should.

Then that wonderful beat, that glorious split second where Bond jumps down from the digger (on a train!) as the back is ripped away from the carriage. Bond stands as the carriage behind him falls away and, cool and calm as only Bond could be, straightens his shirt cuffs.

I’ll say it again: Bond is back. Properly, properly back.

There’s the theme tune. After Casino Royale’s “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell (which I still rate as a decent Bond tune, though realise that I’m firmly in the minority here) and Quantum of Solace’s theme, which I really dislike with a passion, we get a full-blown Bassey-esque belter, courtesy of Adele.

This is a proper Bond tune, for our proper Bond. One which you can still hum days later. Big, brassy and bold. Utterly splendid, it wouldn’t feel out of place in any of the earlier Bond movies. Easily in my top 5. But that’s for another post, another day.

As for the film itself, it fairly rattles along at a marvellous pace, gleefully referencing Bond movies across the series’ 50 years. We get the classic Aston DB5, complete with gadgets, guns and gizmos. We get Bond escaping from mortal peril by runnning across the backs of komodo dragons, a nice little nod to Live and Let Die’s alligator farm. We get the Moore-esque comedy one-liner as Bond jumps on to the back of a speeding tube train. Brilliant little pieces which are scattered throughout the film like chocolate chunks in a particularly tasty ice cream.

In Javier Bardem’s Silva we get one of the best villains the series has seen for a very long time. Forget card-playing terrorist bankers. Forget media moguls trying to sell newspapers (if only I could). From his entrance in slowly descending Rocky Horror-esque lift, delivering a beautifullly paced monologue (what is it with villains and monologues?) as he slowly walked towards the camera, you just know Bond is in for a bit of a rough time. This is a villain with an actual honest to goodness reason for doing what he’s doing.

That moment where Silva toys with Bond, hand opening his immaculate white shirt, stroking Bond’s chest affectionately gives us one of Bond’s best lines:
“what makes you think this is my first time?”
He is an Eton old boy, after all…

Silva has one thing on his mind though, and it’s not Bond. The movie is all about M. M loses the NOC list – sorry, wrong spy franchise – and Bond has to get it back. It’s why Bond comes back from the dead. ‘Mummy dearest’ M is in trouble, so Bond drags himself out of his Heineken-soaked retirement to save the day. M finally gets the part she deserves in this, along with some brilliant one liners of her own. I loved the “well, you’re not bloody staying here” to Bond after his reappearance in her house.

On an aside, that was one thing which struck me – Silva goes through quite an elaborate series of Proper Villian shenanigans and plots to get to M, whilst Bond waltzes into her house, past lord knows how many alarm systems on a fairly regular basis. He hacks into her computer with a kind of bored ease, something the ubergenius computer hacker Silva appears to struggle with.

Oh, the hacking bits. Love. Especially the moment where Ben Whishaw’s delightful Q realises that Silva has hacked MI6 because he’s been numpty enough to plug Silva’s laptop into the network. Muppet.

I love that Q is back, drinking Earl Grey from his Q scrabble mug. Please, please let us keep him. And they’ve avoided another excruciating turn from John Cleese. Q has another nod to the franchise history with his lovely “what did you expect, an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that any more”. Marvellous stuff.

Skyfall is packed with glorious cinematography – the night time neon-lit sniper action in Shanghai is absolutely gorgeous, as are the Scottish highlands (though it’d take some effort to make them look bad). And I loved that the bulk of the film is set around the UK. Well, London and Scotland at least. Bond struggling through the rush hour tube was fun to watch.

As for the Bond girls, we’ve got Eve (the lovely Naomie Harris), who turns out to be more than expected and Severine and of course, M. Can we say Oedipal complex, boys and girls?

Severine was the trickiest of the lot – Bond sizes her up as being a former child prostitute and product of the sex trade, then goes right ahead and shags her anyway. Heartless swine that he is. Then there’s a moment soon after where Silva forces Bond to try and shoot a glass of whisky placed on Severine’s head, with what appears to be a flintlock of some description. The inevitable happens (though at Silva’s hand as Bond refuses to play Silva’s game), and Bond turns to deliver the line “waste of bloody good scotch”. Shocking and callous at first glance. But there was a beat, a fraction of a second where you can see in Bond’s eyes that Severine’s death hit him.

But this is the new Bond, hardened by the death of Vesper in Casino Royale, armour fully in place.

I could go on, but this is getting ridiculously long as it is. Silva is a magnificent Bond villain, and the only one from the series that comes to mind who actually gets what he wants, in the end. A brave move by the writers.

Ralph Fiennes taking over as M at the end of the film feels in a way like it’s the series saying “Right. We’ve cleared the decks. Bond has been set up. Q is here, as is Moneypenny. The old M is gone, the last remnant of the former series. Time for a new story.”

Where will they go next? I can almost see them going back to Doctor No – it’d be fascinating to see Craig and his new, realist, battered, bloodied Bond take on some of the classic Fleming stories.

Have you seen Skyfall? What did you think? Is Craig’s Bond the best Bond ever? Is Skyfall? I would love to know what you think.

My Review of Hackers

Originally submitted at O’Reilly

Steven Levy’s classic book about the original hackers of the computer revolution is now available in a special 25th anniversary edition, with updated material from noteworthy hackers such as Bill Gates, Mark Zukerberg, Richard Stallman, and Steve Wozniak. Hackers traces the exploits o…

fascinating

By dakegra from wakefield, UK on 8/26/2010
5out of 5

Pros: Easy to understand, Well-written, Accurate

Best Uses: Everyone

Describe Yourself: Developer

Hackers is a fascinating history of the computer industry from the late 50’s through to the late 80s, covering the birth of the personal computer, the internet and the gaming industry.This is the 25th Anniversary Edition though, so has been updated with a ‘ten years later’ appendix covering the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, and with updates from Gates, Stallman and Woz looking back at what has changed over the last quarter-century.

It’s a great read, and if I had one criticism it’s the jump between the original ending of the book to the ‘ten years later’ piece, when the world wide web exploded into everyday use. That said, I lost myself for several hours in the history – it’s told in an amiable right-in-the-middle-of-things style which I found enormously enjoyable and interesting.

(legalese)