Sunday, February 21, 2010


Christmas 2009 Advent Calendar

Just got round to auditing the little presents that went into Sue's Advent Calendar last Christmas. No particular order to the photos.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Avatar 3D? Denied.

This evening was supposed to be a trip to see Avatar 3D. Sadly the snow - or people's inability to handle snow - got in the way.

The snow in Reading is reasonably deep for the region - about 7 inches. Normally we have zero at this time of year. I'm working from home as the 2 mile trip to work is not ideal; tomorrow the office is closed due to the weather so the choice is gone anyway.

Tonight I catch the (delayed) train one stop into Reading. The walk isn't too bad to and from the station - lots of snow rather than ice - and soon I'm in the Hobgoblin pub with a pint of perry before the film.

Gavin then informs me that the cinema - which was open at lunchtime - is now closed so we stay in the pub. I let the control centre (the wife) know. I'd checked at the station earlier and knew that as long as I was out of the pub by 11pm I'd catch the last train.

Come 9:15am and I receive a text from head office (the wife) that "the trains will stop earlier than they said". Being in the pub still seemed fun so I imagined I would now be walking back to Woodley come 11pm.

Eventually we left the pub and parted ways near Reading College. I phoned home to let Sue know what was going on, only to be told that I should have phoned earlier as her text message about the trains no longer applied. Thanks. So now I could walk 2/3 of a mile back to the station for a train that may, or may not, still be there or continue the two and a quarter miles home.

I chose the latter and, as I munched a packet of chips I bought on the way, the Earley train could be seen trundling through the night towards Woodley. I still had an hour to go ...


Wednesday, December 30, 2009


A day at the cinema

I almost went to watch three movies in a day, like I did a few years ago, but decided to save Avatar for a session with friends.

First film was an evening showing of 2012, a thoroughly annoying film on many levels.

First the quack science about neutrinos had my teeth on edge. And the cracks in the ground that were supposedly unrelated to tectonic movements. Gah!

Then the escape sequence down routes where no-one in their right mind would contemplate going; superheroes, maybe, but not real people. And collapsing terrain that does so at exactly the same speed as the escaping vehicle, regardless of the speed of said vehicle. For huge distances. The effects did look amazing but this treatment didn't generate tension as the situations just turned ridiculous.

The geologist's "open the gates" speech really wound me up with its humanitarian rubbish. Millions upon millions have just been left to die - a few thousand more is not going to be a big deal and certainly won't convince the other world leaders to jeopardise the whole escale plan. He should have been shot instead.

I suppose I should commend the film makers for the variety in ways in which minor character were killed off - volcano, drowning, plane crash, falling, machinery, aircraft carrier - although, not surprisingly, none of the children died. In fact, quite the opposite - the daughter was able to stop wetting the bed by the end of the film. This was by far the most ludicrous part of the film - a child was able to throw off whatever minor hangups she had at the beginning of the film without gaining any new mental disorders from avoiding death on multiple occasions. I would imagine most children would have nightmares for months after surviving the end of civilisation as we know it.

But were there any redeeming features? I did enjoy the special effects and the representation of large-scale destruction. Would I watch it again? Probably not.

On the other hand, my second film Up is thoroughly recommended. This animated film was pure class - at times really sad and then funny and exciting. All the animation was top notch - I wish we had watched it earlier in the season as we may then have gone out to catch the 3D version too. I'm not sure I would have been able to handle the scenes upon the dirigible - the perceived height made my buttocks clench in 2D so I hate to think what the version with proper depth to it would do for me.

I did learn a few things from the film, such as what a snipe hunt is.

Avatar will be next week, I expect. Not sure about which version to see. I've read one report that compares the 2D and 3D versions - the 2D was regarded as a better experience due to the lush use of colours in the movie that do not come across in the 3D version due to the glasses. Must ask some local people their opinion...


Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Bucharest Day 3 - Trainer Death

Part-way through Ian's technical presentation on IPv6, I reached the end of my tether and decided that enough was enough. The trainer was in a sorry state, simply falling apart. I had tried my best but a replacement with a little more sole was urgently required.

So, as soon as I dropped off my rucksack in my hotel room that evening, I was off into town for a new pair. Amongst all the bright lights of Bucharest's central shopping area, I picked up some Adidas adiPRENE for 269 Lei (£57).

The M&S pair they replaced? Stuffed into a bin on Strada Halelor, never to touch the pavements of fair England again.



Bucharest Day 3 - Black Tiger

Don't be fooled by the interesting menu item "Black Tiger Salad". It does not contain the meat of a black tiger. Or any recognised creature, in fact.

When we asked the Romanian staff about the ingredient, we were told "fish". When the meal arrived, it looked like a large prawn. According to the Internet, the name is taken from the Black Tiger Shrimp (or Giant Tiger Prawn) and, when cooked, tiger shrimp meat turns white and the black stripes on the shell turn bright red.

What I soon determined was that they had served up a prawn-shaped piece of "fish stick" painted with stripes of red food colouring. Bastards. And they had the audacity to charge 26 Lei too. That's the Cafe at the Casino Merkur off my list.

In contrast, the Unique Bistro on Str. Franceza was much more honest. The chicken schnitzel (or șniţel as I should write) did in fact contain chicken and only cost 25 Lei. According to Wikipedia:

"Romanian șnițel is very common in restaurants, fast food places, and homes across the country. Normally served simple and unadorned, ... The Romanian șnițel is made in the same manner as the Austrian one, but as a local characteristic is made of almost any type of meat (chicken, pork, veal or beef). A specialty from Western Romania is the mosaic șnițel made of two thin meat layers (usually each layer of different meat) and a vegetable (usually mushroom) filling."
The mosaic sounds nice - pity I'm in the south.

The Unique Bistro is also very educational - I learnt that Sambuca tastes like liquorice, which isn't surprising as it comes from the similarly-tasting anise plant. I had a "corrected" coffee, or Caffè corretto with some coffee beans on top (although there were more than three), but I'm not sure I'd go for it again.

Ever onward.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Bucharest Day 2 - I want to be an air con salesman

One thing you see around the city are air conditioning units on the outside of every flat. The buildings - even the concrete ones - don't look too bad but they look a mess with them.

At the moment it is November and as cool as the UK. Looking at these weather graphs, it looks like Bucharest is a few dregrees warmer during the summer than London.



Bucharest Day 2 - Crazy drivers

The traffic in Bucharest is impressive. I am in awe that the roads are not strewn with tangled wreckage and broken bodies.

In the short walk from the Novotel to Microsoft, Rez and I have to cross the busy Calea Victoriei and then the insane 8-lane E60. Even with the green man indicating we can cross these roads, caution is required.

Over the last few days, I have - despite the almost constantly blaring horns and weaving vehicles - only seen one car with any damage on it. Bird droppings and layers of dust, yes; dents, no.

Talking of cars, here's one of the worst condition Dacia we managed to find. I thought the car looked familiar and found out that the cars are basically Renault clones.

Another traffic problem is the chronic lack of parking. Every stretch of pavement has a car half-parked on it. I don't think I have seen a single push-chair in the city so far and that's not surprising - it is physically impossible to move around a lot of the main and side roads. Small areas of tarmac are full of cars with parking security staff trying to keep some control of the chaos. In this photo you can see some metal mini-tank-traps which people use to claim parking spaces, moving them on to the pavement when required.

The city could really do with a few multi-story car-parks. Maybe they could demolish some of the more decrepid concrete apartment blocks and replace them with something useful for the parking problem (at least they could be more aesthetically pleasing).

Public transport is good, though.

Haven't had a chance to try out the metro yet.


Monday, November 23, 2009


Bucharest day 1 - No Neil Gaiman :-(

The day started well with some surprise news - according to "Nine O'Clock", the free English-language newspaper placed in my room, Neil Gaiman is in Bucharest this week.

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman to meet Romanian fans

The writer is a guest at the Gaudeamus Book Fair, taking place in Bucharest from November 25 to 29.

His books have the substance that Hollywood movies are made of, while his vision and unique sense of humour make him a favourite of both grown-ups and children. Neil Gaiman is the author of “American Gods”, one of the best novels written over the past decades, and the creator of “Coraline”, which we could recently seen adapted for the big screen.

Born in November 1960 in England, Gaiman has put his signature on science fiction and fantasy short stories, novels, graphic novels, comics, audio theatre, and films. His notable works include “The Sandman” graphic novel series, “Stardust,” “American Gods, “Coraline,” and “The Graveyard Book,” his latest fantasy book which he will promote in Romania next week. Gaiman’s writing has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker, as well as the 2009 Newbery Medal. The extreme enthusiasm of his fans has led some to call him a “rock star” of the literary world.

After forming a friendship with graphic novel writer Alan Moore, Gaiman started writing graphic novels, picking up Marvelman after Moore finished his run on the series. He has written numerous comics for several publishers. His award-winning series The Sandman tells the tale of Morpheus, the anthropomorphic personification of Dream. The series began in 1989 and concluded in 1996.

Asked why he likes comics more than other forms of storytelling Gaiman said “One of the joys of comics has always been the knowledge that it was, in many ways, untouched ground. It was virgin territory. When I was working on Sandman, I felt a lot of the time that I was actually picking up a machete and heading out into the jungle. I got to write in places and do things that nobody had ever done before. When I’m writing novels I’m painfully aware that I’m working in a medium that people have been writing absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant things for, you know, three-four thousand years now. “ In collaboration with author Terry Pratchett , Neil Gaiman’s first novel “Good Omens” was published in 1990. The 1996 novelization of Neil Gaiman’s teleplay for the BBC mini-series “Neverwhere” was his first solo novel. In 1999 first printings of his fantasy novel Stardust were released. “American Gods” became one of Gaiman’s best-selling and multi-award winning novels upon its release in 2001. In 2005, his novel “Anansi Boys” was released worldwide. In late 2008, Gaiman released a new children’s book, The Graveyard Book. It follows the adventures of a boy named Bod after his family is murdered and he is left to be brought up by a graveyard. It is heavily influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. As of late January 2009, it has been on the New York Times Bestseller children’s list for fifteen weeks.

Neil’s 2009 Newbery-Medal winning book The Graveyard Book will be turned into a movie, with Neil Jordan as the director.

This sounded like a great opportunity, training schedule notwithstanding, to see the famous writer. The Gaudeamus website was short on detail so I emailed the author of the article and my hopes were dashed.

From: Ana-Maria Iancu
Sent: 23 November 2009 16:22
To: John Breakwell
Subject: Re: [Fwd: Gaudeamus and Neil Gaiman]

Dear Sir,

I am sorry to have misinformed you, it is the first time in my journalistic career when I have to publish a correction. We were informed by the news agency that has a contract with us about Neil Gaiman,and the news agencies are rarely so wrong. But today I attended the Gaudeamus press event and they knew nothing about it (for them Neil Gaiman is still an alien, anyway) so I called the publishing company that works with his books and they said no, he is not coming, he was in talks with them, he is
not coming anymore.
Sorry to have misinformed you, especially that I am a Neil Gaiman fan myself, and it makes me even sadder.

Thank you however, for your interest in our paper and have a nice day

Ana-Maria Iancu
Culture editor

Neil himself confirmed through Twitter that he would not be here.

neilhimself @JohnBrea no, definitely not there.

Some other time, then.



Bucharest Day 1 - Healthy Respect

Good to see that the locals have a sense of humour when electing their next president.



Bucharest Day 1 - Wires

First thing you notice walking down the streets of Bucharest are the hundreds of cables (telephone lines?) running from buildings to lamp-posts to whatever.

It is almost impossible to take a photo of a building without these getting in the way, as demonstrated in this picture of the National Theatre:

I suppose they don't have the money (or desire) to dig up the streets to lay cable underground. Gives a faintly "3rd world" looks to the place.



Bucharest Day 1 - Italian Church

On a photo opportunity stroll during the lunch break, I found the Italian Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on the wide Nicolae Bălcescu Boulevarde. What caught my eye was the JC artwork over the entry archway.

The building itself is surrounded by pretty drab concrete apartment blocks.



Bucharest Day 1 - Health and Safety

In the UK there can be a lot of criticism of litigation-averse councils and companies when they become overprotective. Newspapers and critics foam at the mouth, crying "health and safety gone mad". These people have obviously never been to Bucharest.

Walking around the city is an educational experience. Here it is seemingly OK for iron bars to stick out of the ground where some fixture was removed many years ago. Pot holes and missing flagstones are quite common and you need one eye on the floor whilst the other admires the many delightful buildings.

Talking of buildings, I'm used to construction work being fenced off back in the UK. Here an efficient-looking moving platform rises up to collect debris from work in the upper floors, all while people walk almost underneath it to get to a shop.

Another scene which I unfortunately didn't capture was of a young man holding a rope which went up several floors to a pulley at the top of some scaffolding. I was tempted to hang around to see what was at the other end but instead decided that maybe that wasn't such a great idea.



Bucharest Day 1 - In Training

The TCP/IP training has been going well with the indefatigable Ian Cunningham at the helm. The first day has been a history lesson about networking, filling with real-world experience from a trainer with as many years working with Microsoft products as me! It's been funny having my memory jogged about the many technologies I've had to use in the past and took for granted at the time.

For example, back when you had to use modems to dial-up to service providers to access the Internet, Microsoft provided staff with the option to provide a telephone number to be called back on. This saved us a lot of money, either at home or on the road. I remember years ago accidentally typing in my mother-in-law's home number instead of mine by mistake. I only worked out why the RAS machine hadn't called me back when Olive rang us to ask if we knew what the strange call she'd just received had been about ...

Hopefully my security pass will be enabled tomorrow so I can move around the Microsoft offices without waiting for someone to unlock the doors for me.



Bucharest Day 1 - Green shoots

Looking out from my hotel window gives a mixed view. Some buildings look in good condition and recently maintained ...

whilst others could definitely benefit from a spot of paint and a skip ...

so it was cheering to see this tree, sprouting up from the waste ground, brightly illuminated by sunshine as if to hint that things were improving.


Sunday, November 22, 2009


Bucharest day 0

Off to Bucharest today for a week of TCP/IP training - I know, sometimes sacrifices have to be made in the name of education.

Due to various train issues, the easiest route was to go into Reading and then catch a fast train to Paddington before a short Circle Line ride to Victoria where the Gatwick Express lives. That was three hours door-to-door already.

It's been a while since I've flown from Gatwick so the exits from the train platforms threw me. One said North terminal and the other South terminal - which one did I need? So I booted up my laptop and checked - after a few minutes, my trip confirmation was there in front of me telling me ... "Gatwick". So I climb the stairs and at the top is a list of airlines and which terminal you need. {sigh} I didn't need to worry in the first place.

Eventually I find the subterranean Aer Lingus check-in desk and am free to find some lunch. It's Christmastime, as everyone knows, so I decide a large gingerbread latte is just what I need. I'm 99.9% sure that there will be no free lunch on the plane so I add a panini to the tray.

Before heading off to the gate, I invest in a Rumanian phrase book - or is that Romanian now? I have managed to memorise one word so far - Bună! Sounds like food (bhuna) so easy to remember when you need to say "Hi!". "Please" and "Thankyou" - "Vă rog" and "Mulţumesc" respectively - will require a little more practice.

On the plane I have seat 21C – I didn't really want an aisle seat (although better than a middle seat, of course). I should have asked at check-in for a window seat so I could watch the world go past. As it is not a full plane, I move back to row 29 after take-off where I can have all three seats on the starboard side. You get used to the smell of the loos after a while...

The sun is catching the top of the clouds with pinky-orange highlights. Mainland Europe is passing below me and large rivers and towns can be seen through the broken cloud cover. It’s half three UK time and the sun is dipping towards the horizon so only the higher clouds are touched. Above the clouds there is a lovely clear blue sky with a bright crescent moon.

The plane approaches a weather front of dense cloud which seems to flow towards me like the output from a smoke machine at a concert. And soon the land and the sun, until recently just a reddish glow on the horizon, are both gone, leaving just white fluffiness and the moon.

And flying up with the jets, a rare Cloud Millipede!

After an uneventful flight (watching series 1 Heroes on my laptop) we are down on the ground again.

Deciding to live life to the max, I go for the bus. A 7 RON ticket is £1.50 - back home, I can't get from my house to Reading for that little! With a watchful eye on the buildings as they went by, I managed to work out when I had reached the Victory Square - a major landmark on the map I had printed off to navigate by. Next stop was Romania Square and time to hit the pavement. The Novotel was less than a mile away but after a while plodding down calea Victoriei, I was starting to worry that I was lost. Just as I was about to veer off the chosen path, the hotel appeared and I could rest easy.

Must get some photos of the streets around - nice mix of huge museums and ... sex shops.

Room service have delivered a 37 Club Sandwich - not confident enough to go outside for food at this time of the evening. And a Redd's beer too (from Transylvania, no less) - interesting taste, bit like cider. Wonder what they flavoured it with - the bottle label doesn't say.

Great view from the room window:

but, as a contrast, if you look down to the road below, you get to see part of the city's stray dog problem.

TV seems occupied with the elections - as you'd expect, interspersed with this delightful advert for Scottish whisky.

And now, before I go to bed, they're showing "Battlestar Galactica" with Romanian subtitles.



Bye, bye, daddy - come back soon!


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