Utopia

Utopia

Utopia

Farewell to Utopia… for now.

I’ve spent the last six months in a strange place called Utopia.

People will tell you it’s an online game where almost 1,500 teams (kingdoms) of up to 25 members (provinces) pit their warring skills against each other.

But it’s much, much more than that.

There are plenty of articles already available on the internet about Utopia ( http://games.swirve.com/utopia), so I won’t duplicate that here.

I found Utopia very addicitive because I was commited to a group of people who were also commited to me. I spent hours researching, planning, watching, fighting, because I didn’t want to let my team down. I know they probably did the same as well.

I created a character called “The Wise Lady Sohpie” – an attacking woman who rose through the ranks to become a first a Baroness, then a Viscountess in July this year. I came to love Sophie (whose name means “Wisdom”) because she reminded me of my wife Liz. Smart, strong and commited to friends. It felt a bit weird playing the part of a woman when I was a man, but I figured that this was a fantasy world, and my team mates didn’t really care what I looked like in real life. I told any of them who asked. Apart from that, I just let Sophie do her thing.

The luckiest thing was that Sophie ended up in a kingdom called “Haven’t Decided Yet”. Don’t let the name fool you – these guys are tough. Led by Wise King Roger, we won three wars this age, and three wars last age. Legend has it that in ancient days King Roger led his kingdom through a golden age where they never lost a war, and had other kingdoms fleeing in terror.

Our kingdom was blessed with some strange but fearsome creatures. I can’t mention all of them here, and I know they’ll forgive me for mentioning just a few of them. These are real people who I interacted with on an almost daily basis.

Baroness Tekeelya is a magical elf who has specialized in a life of crime. If you annoy her she can call down a storm of meteors from the sky to wreak havoc on your lands. But she can also kidnap your peasants, or rob you blind. She often gazes into her crystal ball to see things that many of her friends can not. On our Island of Mortov, there is none more honorable than she is. Honor in utopia is something that is fought hard for, and prized more highly than power or expansive lands.

The Great General Belgarion is an awesome attacking Orc who can capture land from armies much bigger than his. Many the time I’ve seen him return from battle having captured hundreds of acres. I’ve never seen him fail in an attack. Ever.

Lord Icron is a Halfling who recently decided to be a rogue. Don’t let his size fool you. Icron’s thieves are terrible. Many times they have snuck into an enemies lands at night to wipe out thousands of troops. In times of war, he spreads propaganda throughout an opposing army, demoralizing them and bringing them to their knees. He told me of his life in a previous age as an attacking Avian, and how he missed his “birdies”, but I think he made an excellent Halfling.

And Wise King Roger… Of all the people in our land, his libraries are the biggest. His armies were busy most of the age, pillaging, looting, taking land, even stealing books for his libraries. He doesn’t say much, but he knows how and when to pick a fight. Sophie was a sage like Roger, and I learned a lot from watching how Roger did things.

As a rule, I never play computer games. I spend enough time online doing my job. So this has been quite an experience for me.

But it has taken up so much of my time that I need a break from it for now.

I can’t just spend less time on it per day, because Sophie’s province wouldn’t be as strong as it deserves to be. So the Wise Noble Lady Sophie is taking a vaction for a few months.

To the wonderful people of “Haven’t Died Yet”, I love you all. Thank you for letting me be part of your kingdom. You’ve taught me a lot, and I hope that I can join you again in future.

A short visit to the Isle of Skye

A short visit to the Isle of Skye

A short visit to the Isle of Skye

Slainte!
Talisker is one of the best single malt whiskys in the world, and is made in a small village on the southwest coast of the Isle of Skye, which is off the west coast of Scotland.

Every time I taste its smoky peaty flavour, in my mind I take a short trip to that little distillery on the windswept, rain-soaked, mystical coast of Skye.

If you ever feel like visiting, but can’t afford it, buy a bottle of Talisker, close your eyes, take a sip, and you’re there already.

A short visit to the Isle of Skye

Thank you, Harrison!

Eclipse – a spiritual non-religious experience

For a mind-blowing spiritual experience without any of the religious add-ons, why not try a total eclipse of the sun?

In December 2002, I indulged a lifelong dream and took my daughter Laura to a remote place on the Stuart Highway west of Woomera to observe a Total Eclipse of the Sun.

I am eternally grateful to Liz, who was very supportive of her “planet head”dreamer of a husband, and encouraged me to fly off to South Australia and leave her at home to look after two small kids.

We were originally going to Ceduna, but the forecast of cloudy weather caused us to change our plans and drive north from Adelaide into the desert rather than west to the Great Australian Bight.

7 hours north of Adelaide, there’s no such things as clouds, rain, trees or even hills. It’s just flat stony desert with lots of salt-plains thrown in for good measure. I took a video camera with me to film it, but didn’t really do the event justice as I’d never attempted solar photography before.

Nevertheless, I managed to salvage a few meaningful pictures from the tape, which I’ve posted below.

Please bear in mind that the images were extracted from a video camera, so they’re not as “professional” looking as those you’d get from a still camera. You can probably find much better pictures on the net, but these pictures mean a lot to me because I was there!

It was a very emotional experience.

I’ve read all the books about total eclipses, and thought I knew what to expect… but when it happened, it was still a wonderful shock.

The next total eclipse is in Libya and Turkey in March 2006. It will last over 4 minutes. I would love to experience it…. but it’s a long way away!

ecli005
About 30 minutes after “first contact”. It took me that long to figure out how to use the camera properly.
ecli007
About 40 minutes after “first contact”
ecli012
Approx. 50 minutes after “first contact”
ecli014
This is the unfiltered view of the sun just before totality. As you can see it’s still bright enough to dazzle the eyes.
ecli019
A couple of minutes before totality, and the shadows cast by the sun have lost their crispness and have taken on a wierd crescent shape.
ecli021
The landscape just before totality.
ecli022
A strange twilight decends…
ecli024
Totality. Only the corona is visible. I can hardly keep my hands steady.
ecli027
Note the strange pillar of shadow that seems to descend from the sky.
ecli033
Try to keep the camera still, Neil!
ecli035
The “diamond ring” starts to appear as totality nears the end.
ecli036
The “diamond ring” effect is quit prominent here.
ecli039
Time to put the eclipse glasses on again!

Wow!
sunset1
The partially eclipsed sun set over a flat, cloudless horizon. A perfect end to a day perfect for eclipse viewing.

Thank you, Harrison!

Thank you, Harrison!

Thank you, Harrison!

Harrison was at pre-school earlier this week, when his teacher commented about the beat-up old toy wheelbarrow whose front wheel had fallen off.

“My Dad can fix it”, he said. “My Dad can fix anything”.

I’m a hopeless handyman. The first guinnea pig cage I ever build ended up as a pile of wood and wire. So did the second one. The only time in my life I ever gave my car a grease and oil change was when my 18 year-old step son helped me. (He did all of the work, and I watched on and gave encouraging words when I thought it was appropriate.)

This little challenge from Harrison was quite a big one for me, but inside I was overjoyed the confidence that my 5 year old son had placed in me.

So I agreed, and did what I could to fix up the wheelbarrow. I gave it a fresh coat of paint, some new washers, some oil, and had a great time while Harrison watched on.

“That looks awesome, Dad!”

Wow – what a vote of confidence! What a privilage to be a father, and for a few precious, short years to be a little boy’s hero. All it took was a couple of hours on my Saturday morning, and a few dollars, but the memory for me will last a lifetime.

Soon he will think that he knows better than me, and I’ll just be an “oldie”. But for now, I can do awesome things with wheelbarrows, I get to be a hero for a day, and Harrison will tell all his friends that his Dad fixed the wheelbarrow up.

Thanks a million, son!

The Beautiful Tamar (Part 2)

The Beautiful Tamar (Part 2)

The Beautiful Tamar (Part 2)

The spectacular Batman Bridge crosses the Tamar near Exeter, about 30 km north of Launceston.

Built in 1968, it is unusual in that it is a hybrid bridge (the technical term is “asymmetric cable-stayed”).

One side boasts one huge “A” shaped pylon that is secured deep into the bedrock on the western side of the river. Cables from it support the weight of most of the bridge.

The eastern side of the Tamar is not as rocky as the other side, so this end of the bridge rests on a series of trusses.

This particular part of the river is known as “Whirlpool Reach”. It is much narrower, and the currents can be very strong.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Cheers!
(I think that glass is a bit big, Ewen).
It’s a dream come true for Ewen and Elissa.

As long as I’ve known them, Ewen and Elissa have had a passion for excellent wine. Eight years ago, they decided to follow their dreams and bought a farm near Ballandean in Queensland’s “Granite Belt” area. Working with Ewen’s parents Bob and Jill, they have transformed the farm into Symphony Hill – a premium quality vineyard that is taking the Australian wine world by storm.

In addition to the swag of Gold Medals and trophies they have won around the country, their most recent triumph was a Gold Medal at the prestigious Sydney Royal Show wine competition.

This success story is the result of courage and determination. It takes a special breed of people to leave their secure professional jobs in the city, and borrow bucketloads of money to build their dream. Add to that the sheer determination and back breaking work that is needed to prepare the soil, build kilometers of trellises, and plant hectares of new vines.

In 2002 that dream was threatened by some of the worst bushfires that the area had seen, with the blaze coming perilously close to the vineyards. Miraculously, the vines came through unscathed.

Today, Symphony Hill Wines is testimony to Ewen and Elissa’s uncompromising commitment to quality.