Thomson Destiny Mediterranean Renaissance Cruise

Holiday

I’ve actually been away from a computer for over a week – the sweating and shakes have just about subsided! The reason for my absence? My first ever cruise. Around a year ago some of my family decided to organise it and I couldn’t miss out, especially as it gave my four year old daughter her first chance to travel abroad. Here follows a brief review:

Thomson Destiny

All aboard!

We boarded the ship in Palma. First impressions were mixed, it seemed clean but dated and after heading straight to the pool/deck areas for the (all inclusive) bar there was somewhat of a Pontins on water feel. Loud entertainer and loud music. Thankfully the loudness subsided through the holiday and the deck became a joy to spend time on with an assortment of (quieter) entertainment – something to please everyone. Here’s a panorama of the deck at sunset:

All at Sea

Destinations for the cruise were Villefranche (Southern France), Marina di Carrara (Northern Italy), Civitavecchia (Near Rome), Olbia (Sardinia), Mahon (Menorca) and back to Palma. The first day was all at sea travelling from Palma to Villefranche. This gave us time to fully take in the ship and it’s many facilities. Whilst the ship was a bit dated, what really, really stood out were the staff. Quite a multi-cultural assortment of people united by their friendliness, attention to detail, manners and charm. They made the cruise. Facilities included shops, a casino, gym, kid-zone, medical centre and the usual assortment of evening entertainment.

Diet?

Several bars littered the ship, serving up all manner of cocktails and regular drinks. Beware that some drinks, even with all-inclusive, require a subsidy but these are clearly marked on the menu. The Lido cafe at the back of the ship served buffet food all day with a grill by the pools on deck providing burgers etc.. all through the day. With each day came a different theme for the aforementioned’s food. Dinner was a full 5 course affair every evening in the ‘Seven Seas’ restaurant below deck. All-inclusive here meant that if you liked something you could happily order more and the waiters would oblige accordingly. As a testament to the food, I gained nearly half a stone in weight in a week. It was fantastic. One night I managed a 10 course dinner, having already eaten a meal before hand as the Lido buffet was Indian that day – something I definitely had to ‘sample’.

Tripping

At each port, excursions were available at a further cost. Some of these were more expensive than I imagined, ranging from beach transfers around £20 to Rome tours over £100. We took advantage of a few trips:


Leaning Tower of Pisa


Colosseum, Rome


Trevi Fountain, Rome


Pantheon, Rome


Vatican, Rome

In general the trips were very well organised and whilst you could probably organise them for less, especially with a larger group, they provided guarantees that the ship would not leave without you – definite peace of mind. Rome was stunning although you really need more than a day to fully take it in – imagine trying to view all of London’s sites in a day. Beach visits in Sardinia and Menorca were both excellent with the chance to swim in the warm, crystal clear, Med – remember the sun-cream though, the sea breeze can make the sun’s heat deceptive! (Yes, I look like a lobster). My favourite port was Mahon in Menorca, less industrial than the rest:

All in..

..all it was a fantastic holiday. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone. One tip would be to make note of where the ship sails and book your room on the side of the ship that will see the most land. It’s truly amazing waking up every day to look out of the window thinking ‘where am I?’ and seeing the country you can spend the rest of the day exploring.

I would, and hopefully will, do it again.

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Windows 7 blank screen loading with ATI drivers

BangingHead

Recently I decided to add an external 2TB eSATA drive to my PC for two purposes: 1) So I could boot from it if my SSD went wrong (which seems to be happening) and 2) To act as a backup for my main RAID storage drive.

Windows 7 Ultimate installed absolutely fine on this drive, my computer restarted and all was good. Until I installed a few drivers and restarted again that is.

The Problem

Just before the login screen the displays would go blank and it seemed my machine was locking up. The only remedy was to hit the reset button. I tried disconnecting all of my unused USB devices, changing AHCI settings in the BIOS and even tried re-installing Windows. Same thing every time.

The Solution

After much head-scratching and cursing I suddenly remembered that I have my Plasma screen connected to the HDMI out on my ATI 5770. I unplugged it, restarted, and Windows booted! Grrr..

It seems even though I had two monitors connected via. DVI, the HDMI output was given priority by the drivers. So all along my computer wasn’t locking up – it was just trying to output to another display. That was switched off.

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Sandy Bridge 1.65v v 1.5v

This week I purchased a new work PC – original specs for anyone interested:

Case: Silverstone Kublai KL02B-W BLK
PSU: XFX 850W PSU
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD5-B3
CPU: Intel Core i7 2600K Unlocked
Heatsink: AKASA AK-CC017
RAM: 2 * 6GB 3x2GB CMX6GX3M3C1600C7 XMS
GPU: XFX 6870 1GB
SSD: OCZ 120GB Vertex 3 2.5 SSD
HDD: 3 * (RAID 5) 1TB SAMSUNG HD103SJ SATA F3
DVD: Plextor PX-L890

I built the system, nervously pressed the ‘on’ button and gladly it started. First on the list was setting everything up in the BIOS. I then restarted and began the Windows 7 Pro install..

Blue Screen

Within minutes I had my first blue-screen. After some investigation I discovered this was down to the new Intel RST controller – I needed to install the RAID drivers before installing windows. I did this and got a bit further. Then another BSOD.

Sandy Bridge RAM issues

After tweaking various BIOS settings I discovered the culprit was the RAM. Early on I discovered I’d accidentally purchased triple channel DDR’s, when this newer z68 board is dual channel (my home PC has a Gigabyte X58A-UD5 which is triple channel). I figured I’d be safe to use two sticks from each set in a dual channel configuration though. No such luck.

What I discovered was the RAM would be stable with XMP (eXtreme Memory Profile) disabled – running at 1333Mhz @ 1.5v, but when enabled – 1600Mhz @ 1.65v – it was unstable.

At first I thought the RAM may be at fault so tried all 6 sticks in my home machine – all fine! So after much thought and reading I discovered that Sandy Bridge should only really be run at 1.5v. I took the risk and purchased four Corsair Vengeance CAS8 4GB sticks. The result? All good!

NOTE: Corsair Vengeance sticks have a high-profile! I had to move my heatsink fan to the other side else they wouldn’t fit. I understand low profile versions are available now but I could only only find them at CAS9.

Moral of the story?

There seems to be a lot of speculation as to whether 1.65v memory sticks will work with Sandy Bridge. From my experience, they don’t.

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Jamie Cullum @ Under the Bridge

Piano

My next statement in a way feels like I may be saying ‘I’m the number one fan of Emmerdale Farm’, purely because jazz isn’t (yet) ‘mainstream’ but here goes: Jamie Cullum is without doubt my favourite ever musician, artist and entertainer; living or dead. Although Freddie Mercury is a close second. Next favourite would be The Prodigy (Liam Howlett is a genius in my eyes/ears) so I’m nothing if not diverse. And I say entertainer because musician doesn’t adequately cover his abilities, at all.

The Awakening

I first heard Jamie’s music when he appeared on Michael Parkison’s ‘Parkinson’ chat show (Michael is a big fan and invited him on to perform). Here was someone bringing something new to jazz – a freshness I’d never witnessed before. Having always been a jazz fan I found it suddenly, and substantially, re-prioritised. I went straight out and purchased Jamie’s second major album, Twentysomething. This was a mixture of original work, jazz standards and covers of some contemporary music. To this day it remains one of my favourite albums (Twentysomething, All At Sea, Next Year, Baby & Frontin’ in particular). Soon after, I spotted ‘Jamie Cullum – Live At Blenheim Palace’ on DVD and purchased straight away. I was quite simply amazed by his performance, I urge anyone who hasn’t seen that DVD to watch it. After this came Catching Tales, containing some more of my favourites (Photograph, Mind Trick & Oh God), and most recently The Pursuit which features another exceptional DVD with the special edition. Ever since, I’ve been waiting for the day I see him live.

Jamie Cullum: TwentysomethingJamie Cullum: Live at Blenheim Palace
Jamie Cullum: Catching TalesJamie Cullum: The Pursuit

Fate

Fast-forward a few years – a business meeting was arranged in London and I remembered that a Jamie Cullum gig was on (with a little help from Twitter) so checked the date. He was performing on the 29th, it was sold out and my meeting was on the 28th. Damn. But that all soon changed; the meeting was moved to the 29th, 50 extra tickets for the event were announced shortly after and my bank card was out faster than my bank card would be out if a Jamie Cullum gig was on in the same location as I’d be.

The Venue

The gig was at the newly built Under the Bridge club which was commisioned by Roman Abramovich, Chelsea football club owner (who drummer, Brad Webb, tweeted was at the gig), at a reported cost of £20m. It’s located underneath Stamford Bridge, hence the name. First impressions were excellent: contemporary, stylish and intimate. The staff were also fantastic, especially the security guys joking with us whilst queueing. The stage was all set up and I was glad to see his full ensemble including the Rhodes organ. You could tell a lot of time and money had been put into the lighting and audio setup at this venue. Luckily, we got there early enough to get right by the stage and took up position next to the piano to get a good view of the ivories.

Jamie Cullum @ Under the Bridge

Lift-off

Support was provided by Dan Croll, giving a nice gentle, Coldplay-esque, introduction to the main event. Jamie came on at 9 and went straight into So They Say. The crowd were instantly involved and Jamie went on to perform more of his classics, after telling us “start with the hits”, an idea he gleaned from Coldplay/Chris Martin at Glastonbury whilst watching in bed. The brilliant I’m All Over It, Don’t Stop The Music, Twentysomething and All At Sea followed, to name but a few.

The Band

Jamie never uses a set-list. He makes it up as he goes along which, as you can imagine, must be a bit of a nightmare for the rest of the band. I was amazed at how tight they all were and how bassist Chris Hill had to spend half of his time watching Jamie to find out what he’d be playing next. Bands are often overlooked and don’t get the respect they deserve – this band are exceptionally talented and deserve immense kudos. Another great surprise for the evening was that it was a bit of a family affair as Jamie’s brother Ben Cullum, another very talented musician, was there for the evening standing in for Rory Simmons. Ben writes a lot of the music with Jamie and actually took the vocals for These Are The Days, a track he penned. I also understand Jamie’s mother was in the crowd and I spotted Jamie’s wife, Sophie Dahl early on in the evening too.

Full Steam Ahead

It didn’t take long for Jamie to get the audience involved, getting different sections of the crowd singing harmonies and joking and talking between tracks (Swindow FC, Beyonce and Glastonbury being featured topics). At one point, as he often does in gigs, he parted the crowd and took the band into the middle of the room to play Caravan. There was also the trademark standing on the piano. We also got to hear a work-in-progress new track he’d written with Ben – very promising! I don’t think two hours has ever flown by so quickly. Just as I thought the gig was over and the band was heading off stage, Jamie returned to play Gran Torino (the track he wrote for the film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood) and changed the words to incorporate his wife, Sophie, and new daughter, Lyra – something quite, quite special..

Photos

Not great quality as taken from my iPhone but I’ve tried to process them as best as possible – I don’t think I could have got much closer though without sitting next to Jamie!:

Jamie Cullum @ Under the Bridge

Jamie Cullum @ Under the Bridge

Jamie Cullum @ Under the Bridge

Jamie Cullum @ Under the Bridge

Jamie Cullum @ Under the Bridge

Videos

Again, not great quality, as taken from my iPhone and none of these are complete tracks as it’s hard to enjoy the concert with a phone infront of your face:

Finding the Words

Having seen the DVDs my expectations were amazingly high, more so than any gig/performance I’ve been to before. I can happily say my expectations were surpassed – quite literally the most amazing performance I’ve ever experienced. His passion for the music flows through everyone, the crowd is electric; the closest thing I can compare it to is some of the club nights I’ve experienced in Ibiza with euphoric trance music bringing a crowd of people into a single entity. Instead of watching a performance, you are part of a performance. If you closed your eyes you could have been listening to a studio recording, they were that good – although Jamie is intentionally very much a first take recording artist as can be heard on The Pursuit album. With couples embraced and grown men crying by the end of the gig, you know you’ve witnessed something special, something unforgettable.

The Future

I can’t wait for the next gig I’m lucky enough to go to, whenever it may be. Hopefully it’ll be at at a similarly fantastic and intimate venue – Ronnie Scott’s being high on my list. I’ll also be lucky enough to meet Jamie at some point in the future as he released a limited edition ‘Super Deluxe’ edition of The Pursuit album which features a meet and greet pass for any future gig. I hope this guy gets the success he deserves but at the same time I hope he doesn’t become too ‘mainstream’ as I think that’s a lot of the appeal.

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My (Hot) Chilli Guide

Chilli

I quite often get asked questions such as “how many chillies should I put in this?”, “how hot is this chilli?” and “what’s the obsession with chillies?”. Here I hope to answer as many of those questions as I can.

I’m a massive chilli fan (read: addict), I’ve eaten a lot of them and the very thought of them makes me salivate. I think that latter point is the real indicator of a chilli-nut, possibly along with someone who considers a chilli ‘garnish’ with their cornflakes.

What makes a chilli hot?

The heat in chillies comes from a compound called capsaicin. The theory behind the production of capsaicin is that it helps protect the plant from predators, be it animal or fungi. When consumed, the capsaicin irritates the trigeminal nerves in the face. One thing to note is that unlike mustard, chilli doesn’t physically burn – it’s all in your head! (Birds aren’t sensitive to chilli as they don’t have the right receptors so will happily eat the hottest of the hot – admit it, your respect for pigeons has increased slightly!)

How is the heat measured?

The heat of a chilli is measured using a rating system called Scoville Heat Units (SHU), named after it’s inventor, Wilbur Scoville, who devised the system in 1912. It ranges from 0 to 16,000,000 (pure capsaicin) – further down you’ll see a table rating some examples. As a guide, 1ml of pure capsaicin would require 16 tonnes of water to dilute it to the point where you couldn’t taste it any more.

What makes chillies addictive?

When the trigeminal nerves in the face are irrated, they send pain signals to the brain which reacts by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. The endorphins can induce a temporary euphoria, providing the chilli eater with a natural high. It’s this sensation that fuels the addiction and craving for ever hotter ‘hits’. Other reactions to chilli include sweating, increased heart-rate, increased saliva production, runny nose and an often memorable experience in the toilet the following day. I often know I’m eating something _hot_ when the hiccups kick in.

Chilli ratings

Here’s a table of various chillies, ranging from pure to barely noticable, which will hopefully give you an indicator of how much to use and what to aim for in your pursuit of chilli nirvana:

Scoville Heat Units (SHU) Examples Notes/Photo
15,000,000–16,000,000 Pure capsaicin Comes in a crystal form classed as ‘chilli extract’, you cannot get any hotter than this. These crystals are not soluble in water, they need to be mixed with a small amount of alcohol (usually Vodka) before adding to food. Can be purchased for as little as £35 for 7ml (here!). See ‘Darth Naga’ trying some here.
16 Million SHU Pure Capsaicin
8,600,000–9,100,000 Capsaicinoids (Homocapsaicin, Homodihydrocapsaicin, Nordihydrocapsaicin) These are irritant compounds.
6,000,000 Capsicum Oleorisin The chilli concentrate used in pepper spray (see below). I’ve started adding a few droplets to one portion of food – it’s pretty intense! Can be purchased for as little as £10 for 7ml (here!).
6 Million SHU Capsicum Oleorisin
5,000,000–5,300,000 Pepper Spray Also known as OC Spray (Oleoresin Capsicum). Yes, this is the spray used by police for riot situations and violent persons. It causes eye, skin and breathing irritation.
1,598,227 Dorset Naga Highest ever recorder SHU level for a chilli, Dorset Naga usually range from 661,451 to 1,032,310 SHU and are derived from the Bangladeshi Naga Morich chilli.
1,500,000 Yeh Wu Shun’s as yet unamed chilli Grown by Yeh Wu Shun, a Taiwanese farmer, he claims his lab has recorded this chilli at 1.5m SHU, the hottest chilli pepper known to man. He plans to get this record officially recognised in the autumn.
1,500,000 Da’ Bomb – The Final Answer Claimed to be the hottest chilli sauce in the world. Can be purchased here.
Da' Bomb - The Final Answer
1,463,700 Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Currently the world’s unofficial hottest chilli, grown in Australia by the Chilli Factory. Named after Butch Taylor, the person credited with growing the original chilli strain.
Trinidad Scorpion Butch T
1,382,118 Naga Viper The Guiness World Record holder as of February 25, 2011.
1,067,286 Infinity chilli The Guiness World Record holder as of February, 2011. A variety of the Dorset Naga, grown in Grantham, England.
~1,000,000 Dave’s Gourmet Ghost Pepper Naga Jolokia Hot Sauce One of my favourite sauces at the moment, hot and tasty. Can be purchased here.
Dave's Gourmet Ghost Pepper Naga Jolokia Hot Sauce
855,000–1,463,700 Bhut Jolokia/Naga Jolokia/Ghost Chili Traditionally known as one of the world’s hottest chillies, sitting around the 1 million SHU mark, approximately 400 times hotter than Tobasco sauce. I quite often add one of these dried to a pizza or chilli for myself and find the heat acceptable. Purchase here!
Naga Jolokia
350,000–577,000 Red Savina Habanero A selectively bred version of the Habanero Chilli.
100,000–350,000 Habanero Chilli, Scotch Bonnet Pepper, Piri-piri I’m a big fan of the Scotch Bonnet – good flavour and a reasonable, but not mind-blowing, heat.
180,000 Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce A classic hot sauce favoured by many – in the grand scheme of things not very hot but a good starting point!
Dave's Gourmet Insanity Sauce
50,000–100,000 Bird’s Eye Bird’s Eye are probably my favourite chilli – often found in Indian cooking. They have an amazing flavour but pack an average heat, I’ll often chop up many of these to ‘garnish’ my food (using dried Naga to add real heat!).
Bird's Eye Chilli
30,000–50,000 Cayenne Pepper, Tobasco Pepper
10,000–23,000 Serrano Pepper
2,500–8,000 Jalapeño Pepper, Tobasco Sauce Jalapeños are one of the most popular type of chilli – often found pickled and on pizzas due to their nice taste and (very) moderate heat. Tobasco Sauce is a widely used sauce from the US made from Tobasco Peppers. Very mild but a good flavour. In relation to this table, after consuming any of these and concentrating hard you may feel a slight tingle at the back of your throat.
500–2,500 Peppadew Sweet and tasty but no real heat.
100–500 Pimento

Images copyright of respective owners.

What next?

Now you have a rough idea of where things rate in terms of heat, start trying them. Don’t jump in at the deep end though, you will regret it. I’d recommend starting low down the table (around 50,000–100,000 SHU) and working up. When you’re into the 1,000,000′s, I recommend trying my Chilli (Con Carne) with balls. Enjoy!

Click here to follow my chilli related links

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Slow iPad WiFi?

Tortoise

Having bought my girlfriend an iPad for her birthday I was sure it would be a big hit. Sadly, it seemed to sit on the side quite a lot and instead she continued using her iPhone.

Why?

Basically, it was slow – more specifically, slow at loading web-pages, constantly failing to display the App Store and generally not behaving as expected. Every other device on my wireless network, including two iPhones, were running perfectly fine. After a bit of investigation I read suggestions such as changing the DNS, changing the WiFi security settings and changing more advanced settings in the router. None of this worked, but it seemed a common problem.

My solution

Quite simply, my router was set to support ‘b’, ‘g’ and ‘n’ protocols. I changed this to support just ‘g’ and suddenely everything was running as expected on the iPad. The isn’t an ideal solution but as no other device in my house really takes advantage of ‘n’ I don’t see it as too much of an issue. Fundamentally though, it seems the iPad has some flaws which Apple need to iron out. Hopefully these will come with the iPad 2 later this month.

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Co-founding Ragtag Developments Ltd

Ragtag Developments Ltd

I’ve been a bit quiet on here for a while and now you know why!

I started playing with computers when I was around 4 years old. I started programming at around 8. I started planning my future shortly after.

From that very early age I’ve always had the same goal. That goal was to run my own games development studio. This week I finally started to realise that goal. Well, ish..

Of course, it’s not really that simple. There aren’t any employees, just 3 other directors, who happen to be very good friends and colleagues of many years. There aren’t any games yet either. What there is, however, is a company, an office and 4 guys who are so passionate about this it’s kind of hard to put into words.

We realise that you can’t just set up a company then think ‘right, let’s make a game’ – that would be ridiculous. What you can do is produce the ideas, develop the technology, plan a bit, plan some more and then plan a bit further. But at some point you have to make the leap. If you waited for the ‘perfect time’ then it’d probably never happen. I think the same applies to having children but that’s a story for another day.

Having been in the industry for quite some time now, and visited quite a few conferences, I suddenly realised that what we were doing for someone else, we could do for ourselves – with the added advantage that we could do things how we think they should be done. My friends agreed.

RagTagDev

Ragtag Developments Ltd

To fund the development of our own titles we’re doing contract work – this pays the bills, builds us a client base and gives us time to develop our technology and ideas further. If you happen to know anybody interested in contracting a highly experienced development team then please direct them to our website.

I expect it to be tough – I don’t by any means expect this to be an easy ride. What I do expect is for this to be our ride, our journey. I also hope we pick up quite a few passengers along the way.

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Integrated WordPress adding slashes to POST data (Magic Quotes)

BangHead

I’ve just encountered an issue with WordPress integration into WishForThis that I thought was worth mentioning. It’s in relation to Magic Quotes – PHP’s now defunct (well, from PHP 5.3.0 onwards) system for protecting new coders of PHP from the perils of SQL injection.

Magic Quotes

Magic Quotes is PHP’s system of automatically adding slashes to all GET, POST and COOKIE (GPC) data to make sure if it’s added to a database that it’s already escaped to prevent SQL being injected into queries. There’s a lot of debate on the internet about it with the result being that most (including myself) hate it, to the point that it’ll no longer be included from PHP 5.3.0 onwards.

Removing Magic Quotes

First of all, Magic Quotes can be disabled in your ‘php.ini’ file with the line: ‘magic_quotes_gpc = Off’. It cannot, however, be disabled at run-time using the ‘ini_set()’ command. It’s also possible to disable it from ‘.htaccess’ with the line: ‘php_flag magic_quotes_gpc Off’

In code, it’s easy to sanitize incoming GPC data by using the following function:

// Sanitize Magic Quotes data
function Sanitize( $szString )
{
	return ( get_magic_quotes_gpc() ? stripslashes( $szString ) : $szString );
}

This may be necessary if you’re on shared hosting, or for some reason don’t have access to your PHP configuration. It’s certainly a sensible thing to account for if you’re using a pre 5.3.0 version of PHP.

WordPress and Magic Quotes

WordPress for some, I’m sure it was sensible at the time, reason decided to add their own Magic Quotes-esq system. ‘wp-settings.php’ contains the line ‘wp_magic_quotes();’ which basically ensures that all incoming GPC data is escaped, regardless of your Magic Quotes settings. The problem with this? If, like me, you don’t base your site around WordPress but instead integrate it into particular pages it means _ALL_ of your GPC data after including WordPress is escaped!

Rant Over.

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Fonts being resized on iPhone/Safari

Just a quick update. I’ve noticed on the iPhone version of this site, and others, that the main fonts are a lot larger than they should be. After a bit of investigation it turns out the issue is to do with WebKit (the platform Safari is built upon, amongst other browsers) automatically resizing the font to make it more readable on the small iPhone screen.

To prevent this happening the following CSS can be used:

body {
    -webkit-text-size-adjust: none;
}

It’s also possible to use a percentage or ‘auto’ to control the scale. Now I understand the reason behind this I’m going to leave it as is, but if you have text being resized that you really don’t want then this should solve your problems. Note that using this will also prevent the user from controlling their font size on other Web-Kit browsers such as Chrome, which may be quite undesirable (and half my reason for not using it).

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Integrated WordPress missing output on live server

BangingHead

I recently encountered a rather frustrating issue with WordPress integration within WishForThis. Everything worked as expected with my test version but when uploaded to the live server, most of the WordPress blog was missing, including Author, Categories, Tags etc..

After some investigation I discovered the reason was due to WishForThis and WordPress conflicting over MySQL database connections. Basically, WordPress opened a connection, the WishForThis database connection was opened, then WordPress tries to output data from its database which had been overridden.

The solution?

mysql_connect( $server, $user, $pass, $new_link );

The 4th parameter allows a second MySQL link to be made as opposed to overwriting the first. This means that my two databases can now be accessed as expected and all is now good.

The reason I gather it worked on my localhost is SQL Safe Mode is active, which ignores the 4th parameter.

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