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Peter and Pauline Curtis's 2015 Christmas Newsletter

We started the year as usual in New Zealand. We try to have a slight theme to what we do and we exhausted wine last year and this time the closest was Sculpture trails - we seemed to keep coming across even when we were not looking for them starting in Waiheke and Rotorua. Otherwise many of the places were following the paths of previous trips. We did do a fairly comprehensive New Zealand 2015 write up this year covering some 7 web pages and 230 new pictures so we will say little more here. If we had to chose a single highlight from our time in NZ it was our underground visit to the Broken Hills Historic Mine in the Coromandel although we had some interesting times waiting for Tropical Storm "Pam" just before we left.

That brings me rather neatly to one of the major activities of the year which has been bringing our whole web site up to date, or more correctly making responsive which is the jargon for saying words for making it accessible from everything from the latest computers with very wide screens to huge diversity of smart phones and tablets. In particular this impacted our existing travel pages which have Popup pictures as they do not work well on mobile devices with touch screens and all have to offer the option of an overlay effect often called a 'lightbox'. The New Zealand 2015 write up was the big trial being first to be written specifically to be Responsive and to also use latest web standard, HTML5. This is the first major change in the 15 years since HTML 4.01 so you can imagine the changes that have to be made to comply.

So how much work went into re-working a web site built up over 20 years? A lot, the site has over 600 web pages and 480 have been updated since May making them 'Responsive' and converted to HTML5. Another 120 have been improved but not full responsive as the original pictures were not digital or they were legacy pages only retained for reference. And then of course there are pictures, now over 10000 each in three sizes - I know because the tools I am using complained that I was over their normal limit of 30,000 files! My document on Mobile Friendly Responsive Web Site Design is itself well over 30 pages long if printed.

That kept Pete busy whilst Pauline was doing her Dissertation which completed her Master of Laws Degree with the Open University. She had chosen to do comparative legal research about the law for assisted dying in the UK and New Zealand - she gained access to the Law Library of the Victoria University in Wellington and spent quite a lot of time there whilst we were in New Zealand. She has just heard that she did well in her Dissertation earning a Merit overall and is already planning to extend her research to add Canada to the comparative legal research. There is brand new legislation in Quebec which might be transportable elsewhere. If interested you can read more about the Dissertation and access a copy as a PDF.

There have been some side benefits in being a Student again and having an NUS card, all sorts of free entries and even 10% off all food shopping in the Coop. Nobody ever seems to object when they find out it is a law degree! It has also meant we occasionally get last minute tickets offers for seats at the Royal Opera House - £10 for what are the best seats still available and she can take one friend (Pete) as well. They come up rarely but we have seen some Operas and Ballets which we would not have seen otherwise and certainly not from £100+ seats. We recently saw the New Zealand Ballet who were very good but were in the Linbury rather than on the Main Stage - it had none of the character and the seating was very cramped and made an airline seat feel luxurious - beware.

It was an odd not even year so it was the time for a long trip on Corinna - we tend to go away for several months every other year. We hoped to go to Liverpool for the Three Queens in May where the three Cunard Queens would all be in Liverpool together to celebrate the 175th Anniversary of first Cunard Transatlantic Crossings with the mail. We knew there would be considerable competition for the forty moorings in the Salthouse Dock and it would be on a first come first served basis when bookings opened on the Internet. We sat waiting patiently with all the information to hand and emailed our completed application back within 15 minutes of the forms appearing. We were fortunate and got bookings for the passages in and out on the dates we wanted, those who applied after another hour did not. The trip North took 5 weeks and we ended up having 12 days rather than the 8 we had originally booked in Liverpool - there was so much to see and do as well as all the special 175th Anniversary activities which culminated in a magnificent light display projected onto the Three Graces before ending in Fireworks. They estimate 1.2 million people lined the banks of the Mersey for what was described as a 'water born ballet' by the Queens as the clouds lifted and the sun finally broke through just in time for a low pass by the Red Arrows as the last of the Queens slid into the formation.

When the Queen Victoria, one of our favourites, left the the next day she was given a dramatic send off with huge clouds of confetti blasted into the air before thousands of balloons were released just as she slipped her lines and moved away to the sounds of "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Danielle Thomas. Then came a totally unexpected and probably never to be repeated 360 degrees turn in the rather narrow Mersey while music from The Beatles, played. From where we were standing close by it looked as if the bow was over the dockside, a spectacular demonstration of her manoeuvrability. We got a few good pictures including one of Liverbirds on top of the Graces surrounded by red, white and blue balloons in one of the few sunny periods during our 11 weeks away. We have never found time to write up the Liverpool Canal Trip so I have included a few pictures here which also give a chance for our readers to see the new way we have of displaying pictures on all types of machine.

It was a cruise of 3 cities as not only did we spend time in Liverpool but we also had several days in the very centres of Manchester and Birmingham. The latter has been transformed over the last few years and the section near Gas Street Basin is now a safe haven. Overall though we suffered from the weather, from the time we left home till we got to Wigan, where we spent a few days with Dugald and Leslie, the stove never went out and it was relit as soon as we were back on board. We ran out of coal by the time we reached Liverpool and have you ever tried to buy coal in a town centre in the middle of summer! Fortunately so many of the electricity supply boxes were faulty they had made them all free so we got our electric heater out. The sad thing was there was a drought back home in the South which only broke when we got home.

Our next trip was to Northern Ireland where a friend has a cottage on the Glenarm Estate in Co. Antrim where he had invited us to join them for the NI Operas Annual Festival of Voice, a celebration of classical singing, which had returned to the historic village of Glenarm for the fifth year. The Festival combines public recitals with tuition and master-classes for five of the most promising young Irish singers, who then compete in a Gala Final for the title of Northern Ireland Opera Voice of 2015. It was much smaller and intimate than we had expected and it was really nice to be close to the singers and to be able to talk to them all. The standard was impressive and there were also appearances by internationally-acclaimed singers like Belfast soprano Giselle Allen and pianist Iain Burnside. The whole area was beautiful and there were good walks on the extensive estate. We had close encounters with the local Glenarm cattle which convinced us it was worth buying their Rib Eye steak in Fortnum and Mason. Overall a fabulous introduction to an area and in fact a country we have only visited on work.

It is had been all very well watching the Queens from a distance but it is better to travel on them. We had booked a cruise for our Wedding Anniversary in October but we then found there was a short cruise which was billed as the 5th Birthday of the Queen Elizabeth immediately before. It only went to Amsterdam and Zeebrugge (for Brugge) so it was not very popular so we got a bargain when we added it on. In fact the celebrations covered both cruises and we had a very enjoyable time. We had almost two days in Amsterdam so we picked up one of the annual Museum Passes and also a 24hr canal-bus pass so we ended up in all sorts of places we would not usually go to like a handbag museum as well as the more famous Rijksmuseum and, of course, the Maritime Museum. We gathered up a good stock of the genuine old Dutch cheeses which are very different to what you can buy in the UK. The second was a Mediterranean cruise taking us to Gibraltar, Cagliari in Sardinia, Naples where we visited Herculaneum, Civitavecchia where we visited Rome, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Cadiz. It was our first visit to Herculaneum although we had previously been to Pompeii. Although Pompeii gets all the publicity and is a bigger site Herculaneum is probably more interesting and better preserved. Traveling independently they are both on the same train line from Naples, which eventually goes to Sorrento and links with a bus taking walkers to the Volcanic Crater of Vesuvius - plenty of scope for next time. We complemented the old Dutch cheeses with some Pecorinno from Sardinia which is made from ewes milk which are just finishing. If interested you can read more about the Queen Elizabeth 5th Birthday Cruises 2015 the pictures of Herculaneum are worth look if you have not been there.

We had a short visit to Guernsey to see my Sister Pat and brother-in-law John who have not been in the best of health. They had to abort a trip to New Zealand earlier in the year when they got to our house. They always bring a car to the UK and leave it in our drive because the luggage allowances on the aircraft from Guernsey are impractical for any long trip. We were already in New Zealand and only heard about it after the event but many thanks again from them and us to our various friends who saw the paramedics outside the house and took everything into hand arranging hotels and hospital until one of my nieces could get to them. They were much better when we saw them in Guernsey and they drove us out to an excellent local restaurant for lunch.

It is now into the festive season which started with Carols at Jesus College although I am going to go back briefly to the summer of 2015 where we went to a discussion dinner in the Oxford and Cambridge Club and first met the, at that time 'elect', Jesus College Principal, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt who was giving a talk on 'Big Data' and it was immediately obvious that he is going to be a tremendous asset to the college. Seeing many of our friends and readers of this newsletter have links to our colleges (or IT), I will add a little more about him. His background is AI and Web and Internet Science leading to his joining Sir Tim Berners-Lee as Information Advisor to the Government resulting in the release of almost all Public Sector data sets into the public domain. He subsequently co-founded the Open Data Institute specialised in the exploitation of Open Data. He was President of the British Computer Society its 50th Anniversary year 2006-2007 and is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. His current research is focusing on the concept of ‘social machines’ – applications that succeed at Web scale by integrating humans and computers in novel and unanticipated ways, Pete's emphasis. He is however extremely easy to get on with and his main outside interest seems to be sailing his classic yacht. You will see how his and our interests seem to overlap in the Open Source areas, the Web and the BCS.

St Hilda's also has a new Principal, Sir Gordon Duff who joins Oxford from the University of Sheffield, where he was Lord Florey Professor of Molecular Medicine. He is a government advisor on a range of public health matters and is currently Chair of the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and has recently been appointed as the new Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council. Pauline remembers when the mathematician Sir John Kingman FRS from Oxford was also Chair of a Research Council and it is a serious dual commitment to public service, made more challenging by the imperative to progress the tenders for a spectacular new building at St Hilda's to celebrate the forthcoming 125th anniversary. It will be interesting to see how the two places that influenced our lives as much as anywhere develop under very different leadership. Maybe we should have taken our old copies of C P Snow to read on the ship over Christmas in view of the links they both still have in the Corridors of Power.

We delayed sending this newsletter out until we had time to write up Christmas and New Year 2015 on the Cunard Queen Elizabeth if only in draft. We had a marvelous time - Cunard do Christmas properly in every respect from Carols in the Grand Lobby, many choices of Services, Father Christmas arriving down the funnel to distribute presents for the kids, Feasts and Gala buffets as well as all the Decorations and Gingerbread villages. The festivities continued to the New Year's Eve with Champaign Fountains, in our case a box in the Theatre, followed by a Chocolate Fantasia with magnificent Ice Carvings taking one up to the climax of the Fireworks at Madeira.

The Madeira fireworks are some of the largest in the world with up to 16 tons of fireworks covering a 7 km sweep over Funchal and round the whole bay. We were perfectly positioned and the weather was kind. The following video says it all and I only need to add that they had to be the overall highlight of 2015 (and a bit).

It is perhaps time to bring this rather rambling Newsletter to a close and wish all our friends a, by now rather belated, Happy Christmas and New Year.

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Content revised: 18th January, 2016