I gradually came around and headed down for breakfast. It was the typical European breakfast of interesting breads, cheeses and meats with some cereals and the possibility of toast. The orange and apple juices were placed beside shot glasses and a bottle that looked a bit like a lemon cleansing product. I gave that a wide berth and had some apple juice.

SWMBO's curiosity was piqued though and after cereal when I headed out for some toast and she asked me to investigate. As I got there a young chap was reading the bottle and I said I was wondering what it was too. He said it was fish oil. We both expressed some skepticism about fish oil at breakfast, but together we felt brave enough to give it a go.

He filled a shot glass with fish oil for himself, and I said I'd have a small glass. He said 'Say when' as he started to pour and I said 'When' almost immediately. This surprised him. Surprised him so much he didn't stop pouring... So I got a bigger glass of fish oil than I was expecting but it still wasn't quite a full shot glass. We clinked glasses as if we were about to down a tequila and had our fish oil.

It'll never catch on.

The taste wasn't as strong as the cod-liver oil we would get back home but nonetheless fish oil is not a pleasant drink, for me at least.

SWMBO later rightly pointed out the sense of fish oil when daylight can be a precious few hours a day, as a way of getting some necessary vitamin D into your system. Nice and practical. But still, it'll never catch on...

After breakfast we got the hotel to book our bus to the airport on Saturday and then took the 'Art Tour' in the hotel.

Hotel Holt holt.is/english/ is a 40-room hotel near the centre of Reykjavik, but the one thing that sets it apart is its art collection. It's hard to miss this selling point - there are paintings throughout the hotel. There are 3 paintings in our room! The corridors are lined with them. The lobby, dining areas and bar all have more paintings and sculptures.

When booking I just thought it was a nice idea, and the price seemed reasonable enough compared to other hotels for the nights we were looking at. But there's a good deal more to it than I expected.

LobbyArtArt. Art everywhere!

For a start, the hotel shows about 400 pieces of original art, part of a collection of over a thousand (1400, maybe?) The original builder of the hotel in the 1960s was a collector of Icelandic art, and wanted to share his passion for it with others. Since then the collection has grown to include a lot of the 'pioneers' of Icelandic art, and some of the pieces are quite stunning. Yes, even to a philistine like me.

The half-hour Art Tour took just over an hour and showed us some of the highlights. It also brought home just how young Iceland is - the pioneers' pieces were from the early 1900s with only a few I think from the late 1800s. They depicted the old style of the communities from then, living in turf huts. We were told Icelanders only generally moved away from turf huts in the 1920s.

One artist in particular stood out for me. There was a corner of the 'Gallery' restaurant area that I liked. It had 4 paintings, each quite different in colour, tone and style. Turns out they were all by the same artist - Kjarval. He was one of the 'pioneers', and quite a prolific one. Many of his paintings turned up later on the tour, and there's a museum of his works near the Big Church. He also did a lot of charcoal or pencil portraits of people, and the bar in the hotel is festooned with many examples of these. (I'm typing this in the hotel bar now, and there are about 40 of them on the walls.)

It's remarkable that the hotel is so free with its art, and it's lovely to see. Since the hotel opened in the 1960s, not a single piece has been stolen, even though it would probably be quite straightforward to make off with some of the paintings. While some regard several of the pieces as priceless, I've no idea what value insurers place on them. It's possible they're not that valuable in the grand scheme of things, and that's why no-one has stolen them. I think that's probably not the real reason though. Maybe they'd be too easy to trace, maybe there's just not a market for 'hot' Icelandic paintings, maybe the valuable pieces are so big they'd be harder to steal.

I like to think it's because people are responding to the trust placed in them. Maybe people respond well to this instead of always  being treated as potential criminals the way other places do.

Nah, probably not. But it's a nice thought.

After all that standing around looking at the paintings, we headed back to the room to rest my feet for a few minutes. Then we headed out for a slow dander to Harpa where the Food Walk was starting from.

On the way to Harpa, I got a hat! SWMBO finally persuaded me that we found a wooly hat that didn't make me look like a complete dork. (Now, when you see me looking like a complete dork at least you'll be able to say 'Well, it's not the hat...')

The Harpa seems a pretty remarkable building. We only saw some of it while we were waiting but I think it might be worth going back to see some more.

Haarpa
Much less blustery than yesterday

The Food Walk was led by Barra, a bubbly young Icelandic woman. First stop was a locals bar where we were served some lamb soup. The place changes the recipe regularly (every week?). The story is that every Icelandic granny has their own recipe for lamb soup, so they get recipes from the grannies of all the staff. That way you'll never know in advance what particular recipe of lamb soup you’ll get, but you know it'll be a granny's recipe that'll feed you and warm you up.

I have no idea why they had a chalk drawing of a man riding a sheep into town.

WhyIsTheManRidingASheep
I really have no idea why he’s riding the sheep

Today, the recipe was - I kid you not - almost exactly like the Irish Stew my granny would make.

It had the same warming broth, diced carrots and potato. The only difference I could find was my granny would cut the lamb up more. SWMBO said she'd expect more potato from an Irish granny recipe.

UsInBar
We’re not doing a good job avoiding alcohol

Food tours are a relatively new thing. The first one I heard about was the lovely Belfast Food Tour but there’s one in most cities we’ve been to recently. I like having a nice introduction to the city and its food early on in a trip because it often points out places to go to later, even if they’re not part of the tour itself.
Our tour group had quite a mix of people. Some from Singapore, some from Canada, and a lady from the US who disliked the way the US was changing so was going to start claiming she was from Canada. And interesting mix!

The next place we visited was a deli for some cheeses and meats. There were 3 of each. The cheeses were an Icelandic Gouda, an Icelandic Brie and an Icelandic Roquefort. I thought the first two cheeses were creamy but a bit bland. I don't think I'm used to mature cheeses, I think these were just fairly gentle. The third cheese, the roquefort, was a nice creamy blue cheese. Strong enough, if maybe a little salty. Could've eaten stacks of it.

Deli
Tasty

The three meats were mutton, horse and goose. The goose was meant to be the highlight, but I found it tough. The sauce that topped it was nice, I just didn't like the texture of the goose meat itself. Ah well, you can't please everybody.

I may have taken too many pictures of SWMBO by this point.

TooManyPictures
She loves me really. Probably.

We took a walk up to near the Big Church to Café Loki. I was expecting something trickster-y on the menu but no - apparently the streets around here are all named after Norse gods and this happened to be on Loki street. Simple as that.

Insert picture of table at Loki

Here we had a dense ice cream with bread and chocolate through it. Lovely. I could've eaten much more of this. The café had a fantastic mural of Norse mythology. I tried to explain a bit about the new nation they're trying to form in space, following a tangent because the mural pictured Asgard. I don't think SWMBO was impressed. Also, it turns out I've been mispronouncing Ragnarok the few times I've actually said it out loud. I still can't pronounce it properly but at least now I know.

NiceWeatherForDucks
Nice weather for ducks

We walked down to the water beside the city hall and watched the ducks. There were geese and swans as well, but ducks are ducks. We didn't have anything to feed them when they came over to say 'Hi' and I felt a little bad about that. While here we had some skyr, which isn't yogurt. It looks like yogurt and, to my uneducated palette, tastes like yogurt but yogurt it is not! There are some very strong opinions on this subject apparently.

Skyr
Look at all of us, not eating yoghurt

Then another dander down towards the waterfront where there's a famous hot dog stand. There's been a hot dog stand there since 1937 and it's well know. It's one of the few things I'd heard about before coming here this time. We had hot dogs. Hot dogs made with lamb instead of pork, with sauces sweetened by apples rather than sugar. Very tasty indeed.

SWMBOvsHotDog
SWMBO vs Hot Dog

Apparently two weeks ago a building collapsed right where we were standing munching our hot dogs. No one was hurt but we lost the urge to hang around the hot dog stand.

BuildingWorkAtHotDogStand
The hot dog stand has been there for years. The other buildings…

Next up was 'The best lobster soup in the world'. Apparently Time magazine sent reporters to Iceland to try out the different foods and they decided this place served not just the best lobster soup in Iceland but the best in the world! So, now I can reliably state I'm not a fan of lobster soup. If I've had the best in the world and still get Meh about it then I'm fairly confident of my decision.

The tour did take us to some interesting streets. Hotel Holt doesn’t have a monopoly on art!

StreetArtDJ
This was done as part of a celebration of music

Finally we arrived back at Apotek, where we had a Happy Hour drink yesterday. This time we had a chocolate dessert and coffee. It was a chocolate and coffee mousse with crème anglaise and a pistachio base. Very rich, and too much for some folks who were full from the rest of the food.

Dessert
I resisted the urge to eat everyone else’s leftovers

And that was it. We said goodbye to ask the folks we'd bonded with over the last four hours and wished everyone well.

Then it was back to the hotel to relax just as the rain started. We weren't hungry after all that food so we headed down to the hotel bar and sat among the sketched portraits for a few hours. We're not normally folks for staying in the hotel but this was a pleasant exception.

Portraits
There were 40 of these portraits all around the bar

Our Northern Lights tour was cancelled again, so we rounded off the evening with a few catastrophically-expensive-but-tasty nibbles from the bar.

Nibbles
That’s 40 quid’s worth right there.

Tags: Personal
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We landed in 65mph winds. The landing was pretty great, considering. It wasn’t the smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced, but I’ve been bounced around on landings when there was no wind so fair play to the pilot for getting us down safely.

The journey to Iceland was mostly OK. Only some of the people were annoying. Usually I find everyone irritating when I travel (it’s me, not them) so the fact that it was only a few people this time was good news. Some woman was sitting in my seat when we boarded the plane - she said she didn't know if D was the window or aisle and she couldn't tell from the sign. I reckon she was chancing her arm, but it is possible she was to stupid to understand the Perfectly Plain Sign. Maybe. I’m not convinced. Still, such nuggetry was rare.

The weather on arrival was interesting. As soon as we left the airport building and turned a corner, the wind hit us straight in the face (with accompanying rain). Very blustery!

As we sat on the bus that was shaking in the violent winds, I spotted someone arriving at the airport wearing a plastic poncho. The poncho had utterly failed to protect him from the elements, being whipped up around his torso, and instead was catching rain to drop on his now-sodden clothes. An anti-poncho, doing exactly the opposite of what it was intended to do.

Mental note: don't buy a poncho for use in Iceland.

Rain
Brr…

We checked into Hotel Holt, gathered ourselves, and then headed out to see Reykjavik and get some lunch. The first nice place we saw turned out to be Iceland's oldest coffee shop.
I love the fact that the entirety of their web site is just one picture.

I like the approach to food here. Their idea of breakfast is:

  • Take something carb-heavy, like French toast.
  • Use two slices of that to make a sandwich.
  • What to use as a filling? How about a pancake, so there are even more carbs?
  • Excellent. Now add bacon, ham and cheese.
  • Finish it all off with some maple syrup.

Carbs with carbs, with added maple syrup.

Carbs
All The Carbs

The rain today should ease off so that tomorrow’s clear. It’ll be awkward going everywhere in our waterproof trousers if it doesn’t. Still, at least we have waterproof gear and didn’t have to buy a poncho.

Puffin
SWMBO spotted a puffin!

Our Giant’s Causeway is famed for its regular hexagonal columnar basalt, so when we saw this on the street we wondered if there was a connection:

Causeway
No giants, no causeway.

Apparently not. It was ‘just some artist doing something’, we were told. No connection, just a random lookalike. Nice, if a little odd to see on a pavement.

The shore was very windy indeed. Around the Haarpa, something had channelled the wind and focused it so that it made walking unpleasant even though we were warm and dry.

Blustery
Bracing weather!

Here we were, at the shore, in exceptional wind and rain. And along came a couple of tourists. In ponchos.

The ponchos were not helping them. (Also, their jeans were an odd choice of wet-weather gear.) I failed to photo the beauty of the poncho blown so much it had reversed itself into a rain-capturing funnel but I did snigger.

It was at this point I figured this must be the Icelandic sense of humour at work. Ponchos are just plain awful for the Icelandic wind and rain we were experiencing, and Icelanders surely, surely know this. They must be chortling away to themselves every time they sell a tourist a poncho!

Or maybe ponchos are a sign: “Here’s a tourist with poor judgement”

More likely a tourist not in a poncho is a sign of Significant Smugness Deserving Of Punishment. I’ll shut up about ponchos now.

We looked in some of the shops in the town centre. I have failed to find a nice hat. I'm on the lookout because the cheap hat I have is annoying, doesn't sit right, and holds water like a sponge. Most hats here are similar. I'm also on the lookout for a nice hoodie. Haven't seen one of them yet either. I'm not very good at this shopping thing.

SWMBO did buy me a Northern Lights buff beanie. It's nice.

We were told before coming here that food was expensive and drink - particularly wine - even more so. “That’s fine,” thought I. “We’ll just not drink when we’re there.” Still, there was a free app called ‘AppyHour’ that looks at your location in Iceland and tells you which bar near you has a happy hour on and what the happy hour offers. I grabbed it anyway even though I wasn’t planning on using it.

Well, after walking in the wind and rain, we figured we’d check it out. It directed us to Apotek, a place SWMBO out on our map as a possible breakfast destination.

Happy Hour meant most drinks were half price.

However, most drinks were still hold-on-to-your seat expensive. SWMBO had having a £9 glass of sauvignon blanc. And that's half price! I needed a drink after that, so I settled on a simple Icelandic beer.

Some ladies beside us ordered shots of Brennivin. I’d no idea what that was, just that it was clear, like vodka. SWMBO saw one of the ladies try to drink it, but she had to hold her nose. Holding her nose, naturally enough, interfered with her ability to drink the shot so it took several attempts and she still had a coughing fit afterwards.

Street
Reykjavik at night

Tonight's northern lights tour is cancelled. Given the weather I can understand why. So instead of trekking around in the cold tonight we're going to have dinner in The Fishmarket. I had a wibble at the prices (it’s very expensive) but I figured hey, we’re only young once, even if that was a while ago. We wandered down there after Apotek and booked in person, and turned up for our table at 9pm.

We had the tasting menu. These are usually pricier than the regular menu, which made it eye wateringly expensive by my standards. And after another considerable wibble on my part we had the paired wines too. I really had a hard time with that

The tasting menu was great. There were 9 courses, each small course - sometimes only a morsel each - was strictly prepared and delivered. The accompanying wines were tasty too, and good accompaniments even if they didn’t reach the perfection Ox achieved. (Seriously, Ox had the best wine pairing I’ve ever tasted anywhere.) Oh, and one of the accompaniments was a beer, which I enjoyed. SWMBO isn’t really a beer drinker so I saved her from that experience.

Dessert
Dessert was – quite literally – smoking

But the price. I keep coming back to the price because it had such a major impact on me. It wasn’t a question of affordability, but one of value that threw me so completely. I kept picturing what else the same amount of money could buy.

To put it in figures I understand, the tasting menu was 11,900ISK which at today’s exchange rate is about £85 per person. That’s pretty expensive, even when compared with Belfast’s Michelin-starred Ox. The paired wines (and beer) were an additional 10,400ISK, or an additional £75 per person. So that’s £150 on wine, £170 on food and £320 in total. That’s a huge amount of money to me.

One of the wines that was paired with a course was a Willem – a Riesling, I think. Pairing meant we had a small glass of it with that particular course. Back in Northern Ireland I could buy a case of 12 bottles of it for less than the £150 cost of the paired wines with the meal.

And it’s not that the restaurant was overcharging. Things are just ridiculously expensive in Iceland to someone used to Northern Ireland prices. I get it, I really do, that just about everything has to be imported, that energy is cheap but just about everything else costs more. The cost of that meal was just a shock to my system, even though I had tried to steel myself for the high prices before coming.

But still, with a view like this, how could I not think it was worth it?

Happy
Happy SWMBO

Tags: Personal
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The site now has a whole new look. Gone are the orange bars and instead there’s a fresh, modern, text- and image-focused feel.

I’ve removed a lot of the cruft that had been building up, so now there’s just the blog and the encoders – those encoders still seem quite useful and quite used.

I like the photos on the site. I used a template for the structure and CSS but I’ve replaced all the photos with ones I’ve taken. I really like them.

The blog itself is entirely new code. It’s still missing some things, so I have more work to do on it. And there’s more going on with that code so I really should write some more about it some day. But not today.

Tags: Life
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In the first update to the encoders in years, I’ve changed them to be completely client-side only.

Now, what you want to encode and decode is transformed directly in your browser, not sent to my server for processing.

This should be more secure (you don’t need to worry about me snooping on files that are sent, or anyone watching your network traffic) as well as faster (only dependent on your browser speed, not your network connection).

Of course this comes at a cost. Support for some of the APIs I used is patchy across browsers. It uses HTML5, so will probably never work in Internet Explorer. Edge has made some stupid security decisions around base-64 links so downloading encoded/decoded files won’t work in it. Other browsers might be better. I use Chrome and it seems to be OK in that. I really should check Firefox at some point…

If you really like or hate the new approach, let me know on Twitter.

Tags: Development
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‘Fusion of Magic, Tech’
Score: 4/5

Charlie Jane Anders
£5.99

I’m not entirely sure who this book is aimed at. Bits of it – certainly at the beginning – seem to be aimed at the Young Adult market. Later bits seem less so.

Still, whoever it’s aimed at, it’s enjoyable.

It’s a nice, original attempt at merging worlds of magic and technology. Other stories do that too, but not in quite this way. Plus it’s a complete, self-contained story, not part of a series that drags on.

There’s a lot to like here.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘Bit Flatter Than Previous’
Score: 4/5

Ben Aaronovitch
£8.99

This book felt a little flatter than the previous book in the series, ‘Rivers of London’. It was a toss-up whether it was 3/5 or 4/5 this time – the settings all felt a little plain compared with the imaginative first novel.

Still, 3/5 would be a good average mark and the book was better than that. Still very readable, very enjoyable, even if it didn’t quite reach the same peak as the last book (which also got 4/5 – there’s a real lack of granularity when there are only five possible marks).

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘Highly Enjoyable Short Fiction’
Score: 5/5

I loved this selection of short science fiction stories. It’s the sort of book that reminds me I should read more short fiction.

The selection contains some quite different plots and viewpoints, and some of the stories are quite meaty.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘Makes It Sound Possible’
Score: 5/5

This book talks about 3 big ideas that could change society:

  • Universal Basic Income
  • Open Borders
  • A 15-Hour Work Week

It goes into quite some detail, and carefully makes the case for each one. Where it really shines is in the evidence it provides – careful footnotes litter the text.

Is it all really possible though? I hope so but I’m still not certain. Am I being swept up in a careful narrative (the same way the author believes was the cause of Nixon not choosing guaranteed basic income for the US when he was president)? Or is the evidence really as overwhelming as it appears?

Hmm.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘More Of The Same’
Score: 3/5

James S. A. Corey
£6.29

I just couldn't really get into this as much as previous books in the series. Even though there's plenty of interesting stuff going on it just didn't hold my attention as much.

Ah well.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘Nice, But Not Self-Contained’
Score: 4/5

Ian McDonald
£7.49

A nice imaginative book that makes me long for the days of science fiction novels instead of the obligatory series. I understand the commercial pressures that make publishers want to promote the ‘easier money’ of series, but that doesn't mean I like it.

So what we have in this book seems to me the start of a Game of Thrones in space – much more so than the purported ‘Game of Thrones in space’ of The Expanse. This has lots of characters, lots of death, and some obvious setting-up of plot points for the next book.

I can't really say if the book would have been better on its own instead of having a sequel (since the sequel isn't out yet) but it did make me wistful for the simplicity of ‘one book == one story’.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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