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(3rd Jun '15) - Having another go at this. Will be fairly relaxed; don't expect me to review something every day. But I'll be around and about!

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since 23/01/2001


What will it mean to Great Britain that the Scottish National Party claimed almost every seat in Scotland at the General Election ? 29/05/2015

South of the Border

What will it mean to Great Britain that the Scottish National Party claimed almost every seat in Scotland at the General Election ? Odd as it may seem, my answer to this question is: "Not a lot, actually". My view is that the events that will decide – indeed, may already have decided – the future of this country happened elsewhere. Yes, it was a remarkable achievement for the SNP to have taken 56 out of the 59 seats available to them, but the difference it actually makes to the governance of Britain may well be surprisingly limited. The effect this SNP landslide had outside Scotland, however... well, that's quite another matter. "Vote Miliband, get Sturgeon" The key thing that happened earlier this month was the election of a majority Conservative government for the first time since the 1990s. As the Queen's Speech has already made clear, this will be a very different animal to the Coalition administration that preceded it, and indeed from any other outcome that had seemed possible before polling day. Given the imminent referendum on our continued membership of the European Union, constitutional issues will inevitably take centre stage over the next few years, to an extent I'm not sure many people yet truly appreciate. Even if every constituency in Scotland had been won by Labour, it would not have prevented David Cameron winning this election outright. Where the SNP may have had more of an influence was, oddly, south of the border. Here, we endured week upon week of scare stories presented in the right-wing press about the "chaos" that would (in their view) inevitably result from a minority Labour ...

Barnes & Noble nook Simple Touch 2 GB 22/05/2014

Simple by name... you guessed it!

Barnes & Noble nook Simple Touch 2 GB There's been a lot of talk in recent times about how sales of e-readers are falling as tablets and smartphones become cheaper and better. Even so, there's still a considerable market out there for a straightforward product aimed squarely at the dedicated reader. The Nook Simple Touch serves that market very nicely. Made by US bookstore giant Barnes & Noble – although you won't see their name much in the UK – it offers a solid alternative to the ubiquitous Amazon Kindle. I bought my Nook a little while ago for a mere £29 – it was an end-of-line offer – and, for that price, I have been very satisfied indeed. Specifications The Simple Touch is one of the more basic e-readers around. Although it does offer the usual touch-screen interface, which is decently if not amazingly responsive, it doesn't have a colour screen and nor does it boast any sort of internal illumination. That means it's not going to be a great deal of use if you're after a way to read in bed after lights out. Where it really shines is in bright outdoor conditions: unlike with the vast majority of smartphones, the Nook's screen is perfectly readable in direct sunlight, without any noticeable glare. I actually found it easier to read text on this device than in most paper books. You're not going to blow anyone away with the specifications of this e-reader, hardly surprising given that it's several years old now. Although it claims to have 2 GB of internal memory, only 256 MB of this is readily available for ...

Sure Men Original Roll On 04/03/2013

Stranger on the Sure

Sure Men Original Roll On Generally speaking, I don't mind too much what type of deodorant I use. The key thing is to use some type of deodorant, otherwise people start to get a bit shirty. So it was that, discovering I hadn't got anything of the sort in my bag as I went out, I stopped off in the local Tesco to look for something small and effective. As you can tell, I have benefited from some remarkably interesting retail experiences recently... oh, and there was another criterion, too: whatever I bought needed to be cheap. Because I'm a cheapskate, naturally. Price and packaging This being a Tesco Express, albeit a largish version thereof, there wasn't an enormous range by any means — and most of what was available was stupidly expensive. Come on, who pays £4 for a 250 ml bottle of Right Guard? Still, there was this little stick of roll-on Sure Original, and as it was on sale at the princely sum of £1.05 I felt I could probably run to it. As usual with these small roll-on bottles, you only get 50 ml of the stuff for that, but I couldn't really complain. (Well, I could, but I decided not to. And I won't do so here either, so be grateful for small mercies.) The packaging for this stuff could reasonably be described as "grey", in both the literal and the figurative senses of that word. It is mostly that colour, with just a few dashes of red, black and silver to liven things up. (He said, desperately trying to make the world's most boring product sound remotely interesting.) Let's face it, though: ...

Railway Rhymes - Peter Ashley 17/06/2012

Time flies by when I'm the reader on a train

Railway Rhymes - Peter Ashley ** On the slow train ** As a lover of most things railway-related, and also as someone who enjoys a bit of poetry now and again, I was very pleased to receive Railway Rhymes as a present from a friend a few months ago. It's a small and actually rather elegant hardback of the sort that you'd be perfectly happy to have sitting in your bookshelves when you receive the local vicar or town clerk for afternoon tea. (You do this a lot, I'm sure. I know I do.) They're sure to be so impressed, and so distracted by your clear connoisseurship in these things that you'll have no trouble winning your regular rounds of gin rummy. That's 35 games in a row for me now, you know. The first thing you notice about Railway Rhymes is, indeed, just how nicely it's designed. The cover is classily restrained, with an easy-on-the-eye design somewhat redolent of an earlier, less frantic era. The title and editor's name are printed in relatively small type, and the largest text you'll see actually comes from the wrap-around reproduction of an old Southern Railway ticket. A really nice touch is that a semicircular hole has been punched out of this at the bottom of the cover, in the style of a traditional ticket inspector's punch-mark. That does make the book very slightly more vulnerable to rough handling – but you're not going to handle a book like this roughly, are you now? The very idea! ** Do not lean out of the window ** Enough of this peripheral badinage; time to look inside. ...

Macleans Total Health Mouthrinse 16/06/2012

Partial Health Mouthrinse was a market failure...

Macleans Total Health Mouthrinse Mouth care is not a very exciting subject. That doesn't mean it's not important, of course, but unless you're being paid for appearing in a commercial for toothpaste, I really doubt you record yourself talking about how amazing your teeth feel in the morning. Still, Macleans has a new (or so it says on the bottle) mouthwash out, and since I was looking for a new bottle of the stuff anyway I thought I might as well give this a go. For some reason best known to themselves, Macleans actually call this "mouthrinse", but I can't see that there's any difference. I picked it up in Poundland, of all places, so if you're more awake than I am right now, you should be able to work out for yourself how much it cost. One other problem with mouthwash is that the names that companies give to their brands are so silly. In this case, that means we get "Total Health" plastered on the front of the bottle. And what, pray, does that mean? That if you use it, you'll never again get the slightest sniffle? Well, I used it this morning and I have a sniffle, so can I claim my money back? The subtitle is "Tingling Mint", which is almost as ridiculous. Really, all we want to know is that has enough oomph to do so. If singing your own praises is so important, I don't know why Macleans didn't just call it "The Great and Powerful Mouthwash!!!" (with three exclamation marks, yes) and have done with it. Still, we live in a world where that's not the case, and I'm afraid we'll just have to put up with it. ...

Ask Bearders - Bill Frindall 14/06/2012

Never stumped for an answer

Ask Bearders - Bill Frindall ** Here comes the rain again ** In one of cricket's sadly all too frequent rain breaks this summer, it's more than likely that sooner or later talk will turn to the sport's long history of strange and unusual occurrences. Cricket lends itself very nicely to quiz questions of the "What was unique about...?" sort, and the more committed followers of the game can usually think up plenty of their own. However, when the rain keeps on coming, sooner or later you're likely to want someone else to do the work of setting the questions, or even simply to curl up with a good book of conundrums (and their answers!) to be considered by an expert who getting the better of would be a really tough challenge. Oh, I've got someone in mind. The toughest around. Sadly, Test Match Special's legendary scorer Bill Frindall (aka the Bearded Wonder, aka Bearders) is not "around" as such any more, having passed on to the big commentary box in the sky in January 2009. However, for the last few years before his death, as well as performing his duties with the scorebook he participated in a very popular feature on the BBC website; this was, of course, "Ask Bearders", and a large number of questions – and, thankfully, answers – to the problems he was set are collected in this nice little A5-format hardback book – also available for your Kindle, incidentally, as I'll get to later on. ** What's inside ** After a pleasant foreword from Jonathan Agnew, the main part of the book is split into ten sections, ...

Verbatim - flash memory card - 1 GB - SD 13/06/2012

Repeat this Verbatim?

Verbatim - flash memory card - 1 GB - SD It's been a while since I've felt the need to buy any memory cards, but having picked up a new job lot of interesting (to me, at least!) classic digital cameras in fairly recent times, I thought it was probably time to add a bit more storage capacity to my collection. As usual, most of the cameras I'd purchased did not have the capacity to use SDHC cards, never mind the newer SDXC format, and so plain old SD was the way to go. However, I wanted to stick with brand names I had some reason to trust, so when I saw this Verbatim 1GB model sitting unloved on a side shelf in the local discount shop for a mere £3, I thought it looked absolutely ideal. Verbatim has long been a market leader in certain sorts of consumables – CD-R and DVD-R discs in particular – but the company has struggled a bit against the might of SanDisk in this sector. Maybe that's why it felt the need to accompany the card with the slightly wild and (in truth) slightly off-putting orange-brown backing card. Still, I've never been one to select memory cards – or much else, if we're being honest – simply on the basis of how good they look. It's not as if you can see the things when they're inside your camera in any case. (Or inside anything else; this size also works well in my GP2X games console.) The 1 GB capacity of this card is ideal for "middle-ranking" classic digicams. For example, my Canon PowerShot A710 uses up about 3 MB per photo when on its higher quality settings, which when you allow for the small ...

Inside the Box - Peter Baxter 11/06/2012

Testing times

Inside the Box - Peter Baxter ** View from the boundary ** It's a little sobering to realise that Inside the Box, Peter Baxter's enjoyable account of his third of a century as the producer of BBC Radio's famous cricket commentary programme, Test Match Special, is already in some ways almost ancient history – not only when Baxter started in the job in 1973 but even when he stood down in 2007. It may be only five years ago, but Twenty20 cricket was still largely a hit-and-giggle affair and the single biggest influence on the modern-day international game – the Indian Premier League – had not even come into being. Not that cricket fans generally mind reading about the past – I certainly don't – and when the story is related in the engaging, witty way that Baxter's is then it's certainly no hardship to revisit old times. Especially when the weather is as poor as it is at the time of writing. (It's raining. No, really?) ** Going down in the book ** The book is roughly split into two parts. The first few chapters take us on a mostly chronological survey of Baxter's career as TMS producer, and the few years before that when he was a mere underling on the team. We meet the usual suspects – the Arlotts, Johnstons and Agnews – as well as an interesting supporting cast of expert summarisers. As so often, you're left wondering what hasn't been said about the likes of Fred Trueman ("grumble") and David Lloyd (Bumble) but no matter; Baxter is not here as a controversialist. Nor does he have quite the way with words ...

Boots Value Health Paracetamol Caplets 10/06/2012

The value of good health

Boots Value Health Paracetamol Caplets Of the three major types of over-the-counter painkillers -- aspirin, ibuprofen and paracetamol -- the last is the one I use by far the most. This is in part because it is generally the safest for people with diabetes, on account of its lack of significant side effects. (Ibuprofen, by contrast, can cause problems for those with impaired kidney function, a common complication of diabetes.) Of course you should always be guided by medical professionals, and take account of any other medicines you might be taking at the time, but if you're standing in Boots with a headache, paracetamol is likely to be your best bet. The odd thing about paracetamol, though, is that it's simultaneously one of the safest drugs available *and* one of the most potentially dangerous. This is because it has what is known as a narrow therapeutic index -- in plain English, this means that the multiple of an effective dose which becomes a dangerous dose is quite low. This is the reason that most shops will not let you buy more than two 16-caplet packs at once: even those 32 pills, despite being just four times the maximum stated does, could be fatal in certain cases. And you really, *really* don't want to die from paracetamol overdose: delayed liver failure is a slow and painful way to go. Okay, that's enough scary stuff, so let's get on to the packaging. As befits the cheapest brand of paracetamol on Boots' shelves, the box is exceptionally boring, with a couple of red flashes being all that relieves ...

SanDisk Cruzer Edge - USB flash drive - 16 GB 23/05/2012

On the Edge

SanDisk Cruzer Edge - USB flash drive - 16 GB There must surely come a point, in the not too distant future, where the ever-advancing capabilities of electronics miniaturisation become really rather more of a pain than a pleasure. In fact, we may well have arrived at just this point with the advent of the SanDisk Cruzer Edge flash drive. Now, the USB stick is a wonderful invention, and one which I would be totally lost without nowadays. Even in these days of "computing in the cloud", quite often it's necessary – or at least preferable – to have your data stored locally, and one of these thingamajigs is generally the best option as they have what you might call the three Cs: capacity, convenience and cheapness. The thing most people will immediately notice about the Edge is that it is absolutely *tiny* – slightly shorter than an AA battery and considerably slimmer. Even when the slide-out plug is activated, it's not quite as long as my thumb from base to tip – making the term "thumb drive" entirely reasonable in this case! The main problem with this is that such smallness does make the Edge easy to lose if you're not careful. Yes, you can put it on a lanyard, and there's a hole at the non-business end for just that purpose; but let's face it, most people aren't going to do that all the time – and if it's just stuffed in a pocket, it can very easily disappear without your noticing until too late. The Cruzer Edge is of standard USB 2.0 design, rather than following the newer and faster USB 3.0 standard, so you won't be ...

Eleanor Rigby - The Beatles (Single) 16/03/2012

All she has to do is dream

Eleanor Rigby - The Beatles (Single) The Beatles fans who come to Liverpool – and there are many – generally make for the Mathew Street area, home of the (reconstructed) Cavern Club and a whole host of Beatley attractions of a greater or lesser degree of tackiness. However, not that many think to walk a little way to Stanley Street, where there is a sculpture by Tommy Steele – yes, the singer – containing the sculpted form of Eleanor Rigby, dedicated to "all the lonely people". The character and the lines come from this, one of The Beatles' most moving ballads.It won't come as any surprise to most people to hear that this is a Paul McCartney composition, although as usual it's credited to "Lennon-McCartney". It tends to be "Yesterday" that gets all the attention, but although that's a lovely ballad, this is a better one. On the most basic level, it tells the story of the titular Rigby, who dies forgotten and lonely "along with her name" – even at a wedding, all she is able to do is "pick up the rice" from the floor; the implication being that it's as close as she herself will ever come to marriage. Even the priest, Father McKenzie, seems more interested in "darning his socks in the night" than in working on the sermon.Unlike most Beatles songs, "Eleanor Rigby" does not feature backing instrumentation from any of the band members. Instead, a professional group of string musicians was brought in to provide the wistful, thought-provoking sounds that run through the song. It is said that McCartney decided on this ...

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS 12/02/2012

The only way is SX

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS IntroductionFor several years, my go-to camera, when I just wanted something versatile to take out with me on a trip, has been a Canon PowerShot A710 IS. Although now well over five years old, it's still a camera I like a lot. However, it has been worked very hard, and I felt it was time to upgrade a little. I didn't want to overdo things, or move to a completely different manufacturer, and the SX range seemed ideal. Although the PowerShot SX120 IS is no longer a current model, having been released at the end of 2009, it's still a substantial amount newer than the A710. The question, of course, was: is it any better? And the answer is... well, read on!Looks and handlingThe SX120 is rather a nice-looking camera, its black body giving it quite a professional appearance when set against the grey or silver of lesser PowerShots. (The multicoloured Ixus cameras serve a different market.) It also has a nice heft to it, something that can help a lot with steadying tricky shots. However, my feeling is that build quality has declined a bit in the three years since my A710 came out. That was one of the last Japanese-made Canons; like almost everything else these days, the SX120 is produced in China, and it does feel considerably more plastic-dominated than the older model. It's not fragile or flimsy, and once you get used to it the silver finger-grip works quite well, but it's perhaps a slight disappointment in what, when it was released, was considered a camera in the upper reaches of ...

Blackadder - Series 2 - Blackadder II (DVD) 25/01/2012

Aaaaahhhh! You have a woman's review, my lord!

Blackadder - Series 2 - Blackadder II (DVD) IntroductionIt's probably true to say that, these days, Blackadder II would never have been made. The first Blackadder series, The Black Adder – on which the BBC had lavished a large budget, big-name actors such as Brian Blessed and copious location shots – had been something of a disaster financially and not that much better received critically. Had it been produced in the 2010s rather than the 1980s, it's arguable whether it would now be remembered as anything more than a minor cult classic. However, three decades ago, the Beeb was still willing to give programmes more than two microseconds to prove their worth. (Maybe the decline of the successful sitcom has something to do with the fact that audiences need to be allowed to "grow into them", but that this is no longer acceptable to the executives?) Setting In the original series, Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) had played a cowardly and usually rather stupid duke, with his servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson) being clearly the more intelligent of the two. In what turned out to be an inspired move, this was completely reversed for the second series. Blackadder became a scheming, devious and occasionally even cunning rogue, while Baldrick was reduced to the status of "the creature from the black latrine". Oddly enough, this had been the original plan way back when the first pilot episode was made – though few people know this, as the pilot has never been seen in public except as a poor-quality bootleg. (It is not officially ...

Canon NB Camera battery (9763A001) 22/01/2012

The little powerplant

Canon NB Camera battery (9763A001) In general, I have a fairly strong preference for digital cameras that are powered by AA batteries over those which rely on a proprietary Li-ion cell. This is partly because a lot of my cameras are vintage models (or "old", if you prefer!) and finding good Li-ion batteries second-hand can be an extremely trying experience, as those who have tried to repower an old laptop computer will know. However, I'm not entirely inflexible on this point, and I do have one camera in particular – a Canon Ixus 82 – that I absolutely love, despite its use of a Li-ion battery. This is a small enough camera that AAs wouldn't actually fit inside it, in any case! The accessory in question is called, with a distinct lack of imagination, the NB-4L. Thankfully Canon haven't (yet?) followed Panasonic's unpleasant lead in making their cameras incompatible with third-party batteries – something I think is sharp practice at best, and that should really be prohibited. However, in the case of the Ixus I do prefer to stick with the official battery. That isn't because the independently-produced ones are bad exactly, and they're certainly considerably cheaper (see below) but the difference in price doesn't seem worth it for what would be unlikely to be a large (if even existing) gain in performance. Being a small camera, it's unsurprising that the Ixus 82's battery isn't very large, in either physical dimensions – it's less than twice the size of an SD memory card – or, rather more importantly, in capacity. ...

A Darkling Plain (Mortal Engines Quartet) - Philip Reeve 20/01/2012

Just plain mortal

A Darkling Plain (Mortal Engines Quartet) - Philip Reeve == Introduction == A Darkling Plain is the fourth and final novel in Philip Reeve's monumental Mortal Engines series, and at well over 500 pages it's by some distance the longest. Authors often seem to do this, as though they can't bear to let go of the universe that they've dreamt up and which has captivated their readers' imaginations for so long. Usually it's a mistake, and in this case too I felt that the book would have been better had it been around 50 pages shorter, but it's not completely over the top. The trademark blend of imagination, thrills, fear and humour is still much in evidence, though the jokes are noticeably thinner on the ground as the world situation becomes grimmer. As with the previous entries in the series, there's a good deal of death in this book, and not everyone who doesn't make it is a bad guy. == Plot and setting == This book doesn't quite carry straight on from where its predecessor (Infernal Devices) left off, but the six-month gap between that book and this is much smaller than the *fifteen-year* gap that occurred before the previous volume began. The war between the Traction Cities and the Green Storm is still underway, albeit with some interesting – and sometimes quite subtle – developments since we last experienced it. For example, the city of London, destroyed by the MEDUSA weapon in the first book of the quartet, may not be quite as dead as the reader had come to assume. Even more intriguing are the hints dropped here and there ...
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