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Checked Out. May pop back in from time to time. Best wishes and good luck. 8^)

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since 09/03/2009


Everything that starts with Y ... 19/09/2011

"Y" I've stopped writing for Ciao

Everything that starts with Y ... When I first started on Ciao, it was with an unbridled sense of optimism. I had seemingly found an outlet for creative expression that is not often available in my “day job”. Not only that, there was also a genuine sense of community, and people seemed to enjoy reading, sharing and learning from each other. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, there was the seemingly ever-present cadre of nutcases, revenge raters, back-scratchers and attention-seekers mugging for rates, but the overall atmosphere was generally supportive and collegiate. In short, it was a happier place to be. So why have I stopped writing here? Why did I lose my mojo? Why have I fallen out of love with the site that got me started writing on-line? I’ll keep it short and sweet. Tactical and dishonest rating Any work submitted to this site should be judged on its merits – in other words, its relevance and value to the consumer. It should not be a validation or an assessment of the writer. During the last year, it has become evident that the quality of the writing need bear no relation to the quality of the rate. We get six rating buttons on this site, yet only two ever seem to be acceptable. That hasn’t really changed since I started writing here, but what has changed is the ferocity with which H rates are challenged, and perhaps more disappointingly, consistently erased by Ciao themselves in a campaign of conflict avoidance that would make Pontius Pilate blush. Part of the early ethos of Ciao was to help others ...

Everything that starts with G ... 19/09/2011

Spring Flowers, But April Showers Grief Upon My People

Everything that starts with G ... First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me. Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). OPENING NOTE This is not an easy read. It written from the heart on a topic which I feel deeply and passionately about, and as such, it is easily the most considered and time-consuming opinion I have ever penned. I very much appreciate everyone’s reads and rates, however, if you do not have the time or the inclination to read this article all the way through at the moment – for whatever reason – I would suggest that it may be better to come back and read it when you can. That said, even if you pick up one thing, one small memorable fact, or a new bit of information that you did not know before, I will have succeeded in what I set out to do. I don’t want to offend anybody by this statement, but this is something that is important to me. I debated whether I should post it here at all, but having grown to know and respect this community over the past year, I think it will be appreciated and I am sure I have made the right decision. Thanks very much for your time. NEW BEGINNINGS The 25th of April 2005 was one of the happiest days of my life. It was the day that my first child, a beautiful baby girl, ...

Armenian Genocide Museum, Yerevan 03/08/2011

Remember & Reflect, Lest We Forget...

Armenian Genocide Museum, Yerevan A BITTERSWEET RETURN When I first visited Yerevan twenty-three years ago as an impressionable Armenian American teenager, much of the experience passed me by. As upper middle class kids we were guilty of creating a little bubble around ourselves characterised by surf T-shirts, sunglasses, Levi jeans and Sony Walkman’s. We strolled around the ancient churches, temples and monasteries with a detached and uninvolved air, much more concerned with getting our hands on illicit booze, dodging chaperones and sneaking out to nightclubs than we were about absorbing the culture and history of our homeland. However, fast forward almost a quarter century and, even after all this time, our visit to Dzidzernagapert (Armenian for “Fortress of Swallows”) – a hill on the outskirts of the city that houses the Armenian Genocide Memorial – clearly sticks in the mind as the one truly emotional experience of the visit. On my return to Armenia’s capital a few months ago for my sister’s wedding, it was the one site I was determined to make time to see again, especially as a new Museum had been built alongside the austere memorial. A SHORT HISTORY I won’t rehash the whole history of the Genocide, save to say that the Armenian side of the story, which is generally accepted as fact by the academic community, is that between 1915 and 1918, the “Young Turk” regime of Ottoman Turkey used the cover of World War One to instigate a deliberate and calculated programme of deportation and extermination ...

Fisher Price Aquarium Take-Along Swing 28/06/2011

Swinging With The Fishies

Fisher Price Aquarium Take-Along Swing LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU The amount of baby paraphernalia you can unwittingly accumulate as an enthusiastic parent can be quite astonishing - some of it more useful than others. The holy grail of infant kit however, is something that is useful and durable enough to endure to the next new arrival (should there be one) or, at the very least, can be passed on to someone else who can appreciate it. Throughout the first months of their life - until they can sit up unaided, babies either need to be held or put down somewhere. Even the most dedicated parent will soon discover that a constant stream of baby talk and facial gurning - just to keep the little bundle amused - will eventually have their brains seeping out of their ears. As such, having an infant version of an entertainment centre is a good half-way house between cuddles and cot, and, of the many kid-orientated products we have tried and tested, the Fisher Price Aquarium Take Along Swing does the job perfectly and stands out for its excellent value. WHAT IS IT? The Swing is a collapsible, portable and motorised baby rocker that is embellished with various dangly bits, lights and sounds and is kitted out in an aquatic theme. It has a deep bucket seat with a safety harness to secure the baby in place and offers a number of types of sensory stimulation for keeping him or her entertained. The product is engineered with a simple angled L-frame (think of a triangle with one side missing) from which the swing seat hangs, making ...

Ecozone Moonlight Night Light 06/06/2011

The Ecozone Moonlight Makes a Fine Little Glowing Friend

Ecozone Moonlight Night Light I HAVE A SECRET TO TELL For those who have children with resident closet-monsters, or simply want to avoid the toe-stubbing pain of negotiating the midnight visit to the little room, a night-light is an essential and useful accessory. We have been through a variety of them in the past, with varying degrees of success. Most were the plug-in variety with changeable light bulbs and themed covers, but they often did not last very long, protruded too far from the wall, or didn’t give off the right amount of light (too bright or too dim). Another issue was the fact that they tended to remain on all night (and usually all day by default) slowly helping to tick up an ever increasing energy bill. FROM MY ELECTRICAL WELL As such, I was most intrigued to discover the “Moonlight” from Ecozone, the same folks who developed Ecoballs and Magnoloo ( It was different to anything else I had seen before, and, true to its name, it boasted impressive eco-credentials and the promise of significant energy savings (we usually have three night-lights on at any given time). What makes this product different is that instead of a conventional bulb, it uses an LED panel that never needs to be replaced. The product is based on technology developed by NASA to light-up cockpit panels, hence its on-packaging claim of “space age technology”. IT’S A SIMPLE MESSAGE The Moonlight emits a soft, greenish glow that paradoxically manages to be fairly bright but diffused enough not to penetrate ...

Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn, Annapolis 27/05/2011

Cracking Crab at Cantler's

Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn, Annapolis BACK ON THE CRAB A recent trip to the USA for a three day conference near our corporate headquarters presented an eagerly anticipated opportunity to indulge in some shameless nostalgia. I spent most of my formative years and early adult life in New York and at various other cities up and down the Eastern seaboard, most notably Boston and Washington DC. It was the proximity of our offices to the latter that had me particularly excited, as the agenda promised a trip to Maryland’s state capital, Annapolis, home of the US Naval Academy and, perhaps more importantly for me, Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn, a local institution rightly famed for its Maryland Blue Crab, freshly hauled in from the waters of the Chesapeake. Crabbing is an experience that first timers will either love or hate. The concept is as simple as it is rustic. You get a bushel of freshly steamed crab, seasoned with a local spice called “Old Bay” (a heady mix of several ingredients including mustard, paprika, bay leaf, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, salt, and ginger) a mallet for cracking the shell and not much else other than cold beer and fries. My first experience of crabbing was over 20 years ago in a dock-side establishment in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, so I was very much looking forward to more of the same. ECHOES OF DELIVERANCE Getting to Cantler’s is as much of an experience as eating there. Having spent an hour or so walking the picturesque streets of downtown Annapolis and trying the ...

Kenza, London 23/05/2011

A Taste of Beirut for Bankers

Kenza, London POSH NOSH One of the benefits of being in a decent sized corporate enterprise is that you get to dine out on the company’s dime on a fairly regular basis. As our office is located in the City of London, there is no shortage of fine dining establishments to try, many of which are eye-wateringly expensive, even by City standards. You could argue that this makes a review of a place like Kenza of limited practical use to a majority of readers, as few are blessed with bottomless wallets, bankers bonuses or a rich aunt to dine out with. That said, whilst Kenza will set you back a fair wedge, it’s not outrageous by London standards and could conceivably fall into the “special night out” category. Or could it? Kenza (which means “treasure” in Arabic apparently) is located in Devonshire Square, a traffic-free series of connected courtyards teeming with shopping, bars and eateries that is located between Liverpool Street and Aldgate. Along with Kenza, the area boasts the Cinnamon Kitchen and a Marco Pierre White steakhouse. As expected, it’s very popular with the professional crowd, as trains and tubes home are just round the corner. The entrance is off the main courtyard and down an unassuming side passage – just walk toward the red carpet – the only thing of real colour in the alley. Parking in the area is difficult at best, so public transport is your best bet. FIRST IMPRESSIONS The ornate entrance, which leads to a softly lit spiral staircase, is small taste of things to come. ...

The Westin Baltimore Washington Airport - BWI, Baltimore 19/05/2011

The Westin BWI - A Pleasant but Unremarkable Airport Hotel

The Westin Baltimore Washington Airport - BWI, Baltimore DIFFERENT SHADES OF GRAY As a business traveller, my choice of hotel is usually dictated by corporate policy and the location of the meetings I am travelling to, so I rarely get to stay anywhere scenic or interesting. The Westin BWI is a case in point. Located on the outskirts of Baltimore Washington International Airport, it is situated in a “hotel corridor” populated by almost every hotel brand imaginable. Externally, apart from the prominent signage, it’s hard to tell one property from another. Each company tries hard to offer some unique aspect or variation of service, but to be frank, they strike me as much of a muchness. ARRIVAL The Westin is, as its full name suggests, very close to BWI airport, one of three major airports that serve the Washington DC metro area. Baltimore is north of DC, but transport links (road, rail and bus) from the airport make it a decent base for exploring the nation’s capital. The hotel, in common with most, runs a free shuttle service that picks up guests from just outside the arrivals hall, and from there it is less than ten minutes to the property. There is plenty of available parking on-site for those who need it. I arrived at around 8:30 in the evening on a Sunday, so reception wasn’t particularly busy. Check-in was quick and efficient, and two key cards were issued for my room on the sixth floor. FIRST IMPRESSIONS The hotel is very modern in style with white, polished stone floors, lots of dark woods and earthy décor and ...

Amazon Kindle Leather Cover 29/04/2011

Can Amazon Re-cover the Kindle?

Amazon Kindle Leather Cover KINDLE SURPRISE Having dropped a number of not-so-subtle hints to my wife in the run-up to Christmas, it was almost inevitable that I would get a much desired 3G capable Amazon Kindle as a present. The additional gift of an official black leather Amazon cover from my in-laws was a very nice surprise. I could think of no better way to dress up this impressive e-Reader, but would have been very reluctant to spend the eye-watering £34.99 asking price myself. LOOK & FEEL The cover comes in a well protected cardboard box with a set of pictorial fitting instructions. The first thing that hits you is the distinctive, earthy new leather smell. There is nothing quite like it, and even after almost three months of ownership, it still has it. The cover is tightly stitched, and the dimpled “pebble-grained” black leather provides a firm and tactile grip. The outside back cover features an elasticated black band with a small leather tab (discreetly embossed with “Amazon Kindle” on both sides). The band fits into a groove on the front cover, providing a secure, but easy to use closing mechanism. To open, you simply lift the tab to pull the elastic out of the groove. The cover can be bought seven different colours – black, chocolate brown, burnt orange, burgundy red, steel blue, apple green and hot pink. The inside of the cover is lined with dark charcoal-grey microfibre, which more than adequately protects the Kindle screen and case from scratches and scuffs. CLIP & GO Just off the ...

Hoxton Hotel, London 20/04/2011

The Über-Cool Urban Lodge

Hoxton Hotel, London A RELUCTANT OVERNIGHTER It’s not often that I resent being put up in a hotel for the night. However, when the stay(s) in question come in the middle of a tortuous month-long deal negotiation that involves fourteen hour days, several all-nighters, and an intimate knowledge of most of the take-away establishments in our corner of London’s Square Mile, staying over becomes a necessary chore rather than a pleasure in of itself. That said, over the course of the last three weeks, I have stayed at the Hoxton Hotel nine times and now know the place inside out - to the extent that I have invented a bingo game based on the rooms I have been assigned to during my various stays. URBAN ÜBER-COOL First things first. Apparently, the Hoxton is not a hotel, but rather, an “Urban Lodge”. Situated in über-cool Shoreditch, on the fringes of the City, the marketing bods have even reversed the last “N”, ostensibly to add to its chic cachet. That said, gimmicks aside, the Hoxton is rather different from its competitors in the immediate area (Travelodge. Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza Shoreditch and the Hilton Islington are all within reach and at a similar price point). It’s strap-line is “Luxury where it matters, budget where it counts” and, on every level, it measures up very well against this claim. My place of work has a corporate rate of £139 per night (before VAT), but, apart from its periodic (and well documented) £1-a-night room sales (which I have never managed to take advantage of) ...

HP C310A 12/04/2011

HP Aims For Premium But Achieves Above Average

HP C310A ALL IN ONE OR NONE FOR ALL? With space at a premium in our household, finding a compact, high-functioning all-in-one home office device that does more than just go through each of its motions is something of a challenge. As a fan of hi-fi separates, I am a firm believer in specific tools for specific jobs, so I am not easily convinced that a combination printer, scanner and copier can be a master of all of its trades. Ideally, such a device should provide high quality photo and document printing, a variety of inputs, true wireless capability, ease of use and truly innovative and practical functionality (as opposed to gimmicks and gadgets that barely get a run-out – admit it, how many of those washing machine programmes do you ACTUALLY use?). That’s a tall order, and with an already perfectly adequate (and sometimes exceptional) Canon MP640 nestling in my home office, Ciao’s offer to review HP’s Photosmart Premium e-All-In-One C310 was much too good to turn down. First off, a couple of disclaimers. Normally I hold off at least six months before running the rule over a bit of kit like this, but given the guidelines provided by Ciao (and their partners HP) the test period was restricted to just under a month of consistent use. That was plenty of time to test out its functionality, but not enough to comment on things like printer cartridge life, durability and reliability over a longer time. Secondly, I will try to keep stats (such as pages printed per minute, resolutions ...

Sony MDR-EX38IP 15/03/2011

Sony Buds Prove A Senn-sible Replacement

Sony MDR-EX38IP RELUCTANT REPLACEMENTS When my excellent Sennheiser CX400 II in-ear headphones started playing up, I reluctantly began looking for a replacement. Having bought the Senn’s for a knock-down price of around £18, I was dismayed to find that they had risen to around the £40 mark, so I set about finding a comparable pair for around £20. I have had a good experience with Sony Fontopia in-ear headphones in the past, so, encouraged by a number of positive on-line reviews, and its suitability for the iPod, I settled for Sony’s MDREX38IPB model. A few clicks of the mouse later, and a pair were winging their way to me from Amazon for £17.79 (reduced from around £40). I was very happy with my CX 400’s, so was very interested to see how Sony’s effort would compare. I tend to be quite brand loyal, and it felt like something of a betrayal to buy Sony instead of Senn. As such, I was almost subconsciously determined to find fault with them to confirm my fickle folly. That said, these ‘phones seemed almost as determined to prove themselves worthy. IN THE BOX The product arrived in a heat-sealed blister pack (the kind that takes half a toolbox to get into), and includes a small instruction leaflet, a selection of interchangeable silicon ear buds (small, medium and large), a cable tidy, and a small pouch to keep the ‘phones in when not in use. The silicon on the inside of the ear bud – which attaches to the nib on the headphone - is colour coded to avoid confusion. The product comes with the ...

Widbrook Grange, Bradford-on-Avon 15/03/2011

Home on the Grange

Widbrook Grange, Bradford-on-Avon THOSE WERE THE DAYS With two young children, it’s not often that my wife and I get to holiday as a couple. Our toddler is too attached to his mum to be left comfortably overnight with either of his willing sets of grandparents, and with our third child imminent, the prospects of a weekend away now look even more remote. As such, we have bowed to the inevitable and replaced our annual wedding anniversary trips with a more family orientated weekend away. Our destination of choice in October was Longleat, so we wanted a comfortable hotel to overnight in, preferably one which included tickets for the safari park. After a bit of on-line research, Widbrook Grange Hotel was available and seemed to fit the bill nicely. THE ROAD NOT TAKEN The property is located on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon, about a twenty five minute drive from Longleat. The drive from south-west London took an easy hour and fifty minutes. For those more familiar with Bath, Widbrook Grange is about twenty minutes away. We placed our faith in our trusty TomTom to get us there, but unfortunately, the postcode provided on the hotel literature was a little imprecise. Slavish adherence to its directions would have deposited us in the middle of a ploughed field. Fortunately, we exercised a bit of common sense and continued about 100 yards further down the A363 Trowbridge Road, and were relieved to discover the clearly signposted, hedge-lined narrow drive to the hotel. There is normally sufficient parking ...

Wii Sports Resort (Wii) 15/03/2011

Wii Resort For Island Sports

Wii Sports Resort (Wii) INTRODUCTION Our Nintendo Wii has been hibernating under our TV, gathering dust since shortly after Christmas. The Wii party games made a brief appearance for the holidays and the shine of Wii Fit wore off after our New Year’s resolutions met with their usual success and longevity (i.e. none). It’s a fab console, but it’s very ease of “pick up and play” makes it just as easy to ignore in favour of other pursuits. However, we were intrigued by the promise and novelty of the new Wii MotionPlus gadget, and when Wii Sports Resort (WSR) – essentially Wii Sports 2 – was announced, it was immediately added to our Wish List. As such, I was delighted when I received it for my birthday last week, and It has played a part in our nightly entertainment since. WHAT’S IN THE BOX WSR comes packaged with the game (in its own DVD-style case) and an elongated clear silicon “skin” cover with the MotionPlus accessory already pre-inserted into it, designed to replace the original one that comes with the Wii Remote. You will need to buy additional MotionPlus gadgets (£14.99 RRP) for each of your remotes should you want them. Note - you cannot play WSR without the MotionPlus accessory. The game case includes a detailed instruction booklet and a Club Nintendo scratch card containing a unique PIN code. Membership of Cub Nintendo (you sign up on-line here: allows you to register your products and get points for them, which you can redeem against various catalogue items, ...

Cotton Traders 15/03/2011

Cotton Traders - A Good Source for Wardrobe Staples

Cotton Traders INTRODUCTION Cotton Traders (CT) has become a staple source of clothes for me. In my darkest days, pushing almost 25 stone, it was my only reasonably priced, mainstream source of outsized clothes that did not carry the psychological baggage inherent in “Big & Tall” and “High & Mighty” type shops. With sizes up to 4XL for T-shirts and polo shirts, and waist sizes up to 52 inches, it was a godsend. The only downside was that ordering from them helped perpetuate the illusion that my size was OK. In fact, it was when I started struggling to get into CT’s biggest clothes that the penny finally dropped and I took decisive action to manage my health. The good news, for readers at least, is that I have ordered clothes from them for going on three years, in various sizes, and have built up enough experience – both good and bad – to be able to write an objective review on their offerings. CT THREE WAYS You can buy their products three ways - mail order, internet or telephone. CT - which was founded by two ex-rugby players, started out as a mail order company selling rugby shirts, and it still does a bulk of its business this way. However, they run a comprehensive web site from which you can order direct ( This is how I buy CT clothes. They also have – at last count - 75 shops, which vary in location from high street retail units, garden centres (yes, you read that right) to various “factory outlet” type shopping centres. STOCK IN TRADE I primarily use ...
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