Flying virtually to a real virtual place

We don’t get to travel much at the moment so being able to virtual visit places is fun. Of course visiting places that exist, but don’t exist, yet do are even more fun 🙂

Today is a slightly odd day as Predlet 1.0 is heading back to a face to face class at 6th form college for the first time since february and the 2020 lockdown. To avoid cramming into a train I need to drive here the 20 mins to college so I am up bright and early, so a good time to share this post which I put both on facebook and twitter yesterday, but is something more memorable (for me anyway).

Microsoft FlightSimulator2020 came out in mid August and I have always been a fan of flight sims in general, but this one lets you fly anywhere in the World because it uses Microsoft’s Bing photographic maps of the globe and combined that with a bunch of other data sources to create buildings, trees, traffic and even realtime weather for anywhere you choose to head to. The standard thing to do is jump in a plane and fly over your own house, we have all done it. You can pause the flight and jump off in a camera drone to explore the view and it is quite fascinating. You can of course do this with things like google maps and street view, I have played with that in VR too, where I actually found myself walking out of the train station. However the live digital twin of the world and the fun of actually flying different types of plane really give flight sim something else. Hence, I thought I would visit somewhere that is real, but also fictitious or virtual in one of my little planes.

When I wrote the first novel Reconfigure I set Roisin’s adventure in a very british style edge of town/city environment with lots of access to countryside and some rural locations. Whilst the science of the coordinate system was consistent with itself, the entire place was a mix of images in my head of places near me or that I have visited. When it came to the follow up Cont3xt I challenged myself to find a more exotic and remote location. As I wrote back then I found an actual island for sale and used Google Earth to scout the location off the Brazilian coast. I used Street View to head to the local mainland town and wander around to get the feel of the place. Lots of the things in the book, despite it being scifi, are based on real things. It is worth noting Roisin has a real Twitter account (key in the original story), Marmite is almost a second character, she builds systems using Unity and even uses protocols like MQTT sole some things. OK the quantum computing part is a bit more off the chart but its all based on real theories extended a little to tell a good yarn.

Along come Flightsim2020 with the ability to fly anywhere in the world. The navigation map to select where to fly lets you click anywhere but it works best if you have an airfield to start from, it feels more like a real journey. Whilst the main town in Cont3xt has an aiport there is also a grass landing strip on another island about 1 mile east of Roisin’s island. I headed there.

Flying over my books island
Landing strip

I took off, avoiding the trees at the end of the runway and as I banked and levelled on the right course, there it was.

Flying over my books island
heading to the island

I got quick a shiver down my neck and back as it took me back to the buzz of writing the books and the fun of the story and adventure, the anticipation of the fun others might have reading it.

Flying over my books island
Overview with the plane

The island in context has a slightly larger building and a helipad, plus a large “container” but of course they were the artefacts I added in the story.

I also then headed North, a trip that used boats in the book, toward the main town.

Flying over my books island
Heading to town

And there it was the jetty and the market shops that Roisin tries to stay out of trouble in while gathering supplies (including more Marmite)

Flying over my books island

I then flew back, over the island again and landed (yes actually landed not crashed) the plane one the grass strip nearby.

Flying over my books island
Heading back

The whole flight was awe-inspiring. I realise that its more of an incredible personal experience for me as a writer but it made me consider the sort of images and film like sequences I saw in my head that I then wrote in the words. It made me smile doing it and writing this 🙂 I hope you get a kick out of this too.

The Northern lights virtual and real

The end of a very busy travel year in 2018 which included work trips to Barcelona, Madrid, Santa Clara, Boston, Shenzhen / Hong Kong and holidays to Japan and Portugal ended with a holiday trip to Sweden and up into the arctic circle in search of the Northern Lights.

This trip was a birthday president for my wife from back in August and I had booked the IceHotel for a couple of nights and then a trip to Abisko mountain (one of the best places in the world to see the Norther Lights.

Like all natural wonders, especially ones that depend on weather conditions we were not certain to see the lights so it was really interesting that serendipity kicked in just before we set off not the trip and wonder Forza Horizon 4 released its DLC – Fortune Island just before we set off. In this expansion the scenery is a remote crazy island north of Scotland and amongst other things, as night draws in you are treated to a wonderful display of the northern lights. So I took a few screen shots to take with me on holiday almost as a lucky charm.

Forza horizon 4 northern lights
Forza Horizon 4 Northern Lights
Forza horizon 4 northern lights
more Forza Horizon Northern Lights

Before the full northern lights trip to Abisko the Ice Hotel near Kiruna was our destination. (No kickbacks of benefits here but the trip was booked through Discover The World)

We stayed our first night in the IceHotel 365 where out room was at -5C, we did have a warm bathroom out back but spent the night in a thermal sleeping bag sleeping on reindeer skins on ice in a victorian themed room.

Ice hotel room
Ice Hotel 365
Ice hotel room
Ice Bed

This was quite an experience, yes its cold, but its quite nice sipping champagne from ice goblets in an icy work of art.

Ice hotel room

I had to apologise to the hotel in the morning though as I sat on this Ice Chair and it decided to break as I leant back gently on it.

Ice hotel room
Ice Chair

It was -25C outside in the morning, so the Hotel felt tropical

-27c on frozen lake
iced up

Whilst there was a tiny bit of light (more of a dusk) we were far enough north for it to always be dark, as my sun cycle on the Apple watch showed


We had a great trip out on the snowmobiles from here on the night we slept in a warm hotel room, which was a good call I think!

On this trip we did see or first inkling of the norther lights which as you can see is not the most spectacular picture ever.

Northern lights
Faint northern lights

However, things improved greatly when we headed up to Abisko for the night, with a cable car up to the top of the mountain a nice meal and wine, then we heard shouts of “wow look at this” from one of our fellow travellers. He dashed in with a photo, that I thought was, like my earlier one at the start of this post, from a game or a fake. Eventually we finished eating and donned our polar suits and stepped outside. It was pretty amazing.

Northern lights
Northern Lights Abisko
Northern lights
Northern lights
Northern lights
Northern lights

The complete set I took are below and here on Flickr in a group (yes I am sticking with Flickr with a pro account)

Northern Lights Abisko 2018

All the photos are taken with an Iphone App “Northern Light” that helps set the exposure and camera settings, this is because they lights do not look this green to the naked eye, but you need to have a long exposure to see them on a camera, which enhances the green, and other colours sometimes.

What you see is a greyish wisp of cloud hanging in the sky that as you look at changes shapes and swirls, fast enough to notice its changed not slow enough it does not seem to. The guides suggest that it takes 30 mins of darkness for you nigh vision to kick in, but any light then resets that. We were all busy taking picture then looking at them so maybe we did not see the colours quite as much as possible if there is no light, but it was like an instant version of sending pictures to be developed, you see a swirl, you snap, you look and see more of this intense green blast on the screen. Look up and it’s a different shape.

I think the several hours of display we got was pretty much as good as it could possibly be. The entire group was in awe of it, and you can see, like many natural wonder, why it yields do many tribal folklore stories of ancestral ghosts, magic fox tails and gods battling.

So the real thing was definitely better than the virtual but the virtual you can see with the naked eye. It is also fascinating that every image we or film shown of the Northern Lights its effectively an image enhancement of the real thing. In reality its a subtle and ethereal thing rather than a full on fireworks display to our naked eye, but both are equally wondrous and fantastic.

I nearly forgot to mention another funny piece of detail in the Ice Hotel room artwork. I only just about noticed it, but on one of the bedside tables was an ice glass carved and placed, but it seemed to have something in it. Very clever 🙂

Ice false teeth on bedside cabinet
Icy False Teeth

Travel broadens the mind – Japan Part 1 Tokyo

This year has been pretty full with travel mostly with work but also with a fantastic family trip. The work trips included January to Boston, February it was Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Las Vegas for an IBM event in March, end of April it was Hannover and I just got back from Santa Clara, California from an IoT event. Nestled in there between Vegas and Hannover at the start of April was the family trip to Japan. This was a 50th birthday gift from my wife that I received the previous August. It seemed to take an age coming, partly with all the other travel before it, but was well worth the wait.
We headed out from Heathrow airport stopping by Heston’s airline food place in the terminal

Heston at Heathrow

Our first stop was Tokyo (ignoring the part about the very long flight as I just zone out and get on with that now)
We arrived to be met by the local representative, as this was all book through the wonderful Trailfinders company. He presented us with all the train tickets and schedule reminders and navigated us to the hotel (we chose a to pay for a taxi though we had train tickets as … you know a long flight!). Driving through the Tokyo roads the place looked and felt just right, it was not even too crowded or busy. The taxi driver was wearing white gloves (no picture of that but it just came to mind)
We were staying in Park Hotel at the Shiodome Media Tower which was ideally situated for the train lines.

Park Hotel

The hotel took up the top floors of what a media office block but its internal atrium style made it feel miles away from anything.

Park Hotel

We still had some time to explore after arriving before crashing out, so we went for a walk.

Tokyo Sunset

Being in the media part of the city there was some interesting art. Which kind of hints at the wonderful Japanese mix of efficiency and buttoned down approach to life combined with a great expression of art and culture and the joy of life.

Odd Sculptures

Right near all the polished skyscrapers we found this district full of small arcades and shops. The loud noise of the pachinko places, where thousands of small ball bearing ping around pins was noticeable. We did not go in as they don’t allow under 18’s in to these gambling areas, despite the bright lights and manga window dressing.

Near the hotel

So here we were in Tokyo, ready for the adventure

Family in Japan

As expected, vending machines were everywhere, this was just round from the shops. Hot and cold cans of drink of all sorts.

Vending machines

Across from the hotel they were shooting a kids TV show, I was going to try and join in for old time’s sake 🙂

Japan trip

It made for an odd skyline picture but again, so very Japanese in its contrast and blending at the same time.

Character Hiding

With the potential confusion of a language that we have almost no possibility to read or speak with any degree of competence we had a guide show us around Tokyo on the first day. This was also great to be able to talk about the differences and similarities in our cultures. I learned an awful lot from our guide and we also shared our perspectives. One of the key things that we learned was about the religious side of life. Japan has both Shinto and Buddhist culture, plus a smattering of other things like christian churches. However the key is that there seems to be no specific religious tension, it is not a choice of believing or not in one or the other, the Japanese people have absorbed both, or all. Our guide said asking someone what religion they were in Japan would be a confusing question, as its melded and just all part of life. Shinto shrines are typically marked by the typical square arch, with rope and white flags and buddhism has ornate temples, they co-exist.
We first went to a temple though, obviously a tourist trap with lots of shops around it, but at the same time oddly tranquil despite the crowds. We were shown how to cleanse our hands with water and make an offering and a prayer. It did not, as an atheist feel hypocritical nor like being a tourist, just blending in.

Tokyo tour

Tokyo Temple

We were lucky enough to see some of the famous cherry blossom

Cherry Blossom

We also got to see a very rare art exhibition of panel paintings, not photos of those, but they were stunning. All telling various Japanese samurai stories and fables. The art style being 2d and not using perspective, yet at the same time feeling flowing and in motion.

Escaping hustle and bustle we entered the Japanese garden next to temple. The aim of these is to recreate elements of nature, ponds are lakes and sea, rocks represent mountain ranges.


Like our pond at home, lots of Koi


The garden is very old, again part of the absorbing of the old and new that the culture seems suited to.

Tokyo tour

Right next door, in the same grounds as the temple this was our first view of a Shinto shrine, we did not visit this particular one as we had more of that to come.


We took a boat trip back to our next destination, but our guide pointed out these buildings and highlighted the symbolism that is often used. The Horns on the building in the background are the logo of the beer company, the building to its left has golden windows and a white top, representing a glass of beer!

Beer building

we were heading to another park, in the background one of those buildings is our hotel.


The park offered more peace and quite from the hustle of the city

Cherry Blossom


We were heading to a tea house, where we had our first tach of Matcha (Green tea). This is not the normal weak green tea, but frothy almost broth. Sweet paste is eaten first then the more sour tea is slurped down.


No chairs (or shoes)

Tea house

Tea House

On leaving we saw one of the original 60’s capsule architecture examples. Still nestled in and preserved and absorbed.

Capsule architecture

Then it was up to a very high floor to have a meal.

High up

They did have an english menu but our guide talked us through this


It was also really nice to get this, and odd as I had forgotten it was now april 2018 and my birthday was in August 17 🙂


An yes there were robots, Softbank’s Pepper made an appearance on this trip a few times


In Tokyo, whilst navigation may have been a worry, once you get there its pretty easy, every is labelled and numbers and signs tend to have English too.


We went past or through a shopping district and ended up in a toy shop, thousands of collectibles. Including dancing storm troopers

Star Wars

I nearly bought this wonderful predator Mr Potato Head, but showed some restraint. In Second Life my full name is epredator potato, just to add to the serendiptiy! I bought a mini Deadpool instead.

Tokyo trip

We were headed to the main Shinto shrine, we were shown how our guide respectfully crossed each arched boundary, at the side of each, bowing with respect as we got deeper into the shrine.Not something everyone was doing by any stretch, but it seemed the right approach.

Shinto entrance

Organisations have barrels of Sake and of Whiskey stored as an offering for good luck and prosperity.

Sake Barrels


The centre of the shrine was a very large structure and area.


Then for utter contrast we were taken to the “teenagers” favourite shopping street and hangout. An utterly crammed area that we battled around so that the kids could take a look, but I was very glad to escape.

Teenager alley

Tokyo tour

We then hopped on the train back to our hotel.


I didn’t photograph all my food, but there is more of this later. Stunning textures and colours and presentation on every dish we ate everywhere


The next day we were on our own heading out into the city

Japan Tokyo day 2

More to come…….

The entire album of photos (all 550+ of course!)