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You've all seen them, haven't you? Those weird vehicles, with the bug-eyes! Most people have to look twice, just to ensure their eyes aren't deceiving them. With the Multipla, Fiat have managed to create the most unique car on the road. (Although Renault are beginning to get in on the act with their new creations...) So I'm going to tell you the story of how I came to choose a Multipla, and what I think of it now, after 2 weeks ownership.... are you sitting comfortably....? We're not a big family, really. Just me, the wife, the daughter (aged 2 1/2) and the dog. But we often found the boot of our old Laguna filling up when we went on long trips, so we were looking for something a little bit bigger. There is another, slightly more selfish reason to get something larger - I'm a bit on the tall side (6'3), and wanted to sit in a slightly more upright position. We researched possible replacements for the Laguna in depth. We went through all the different options - Estates (boring, and surprisingly poor leg room in the back), Galaxy/Alhambra etc. (too big), Scenic (too boring), Zafira (a close second, but still very dull), Picasso (my wife couldn't stand it), 4x4 (rubbish fuel consumption, and we'd only be getting one for pose value).... After umming and ahhhing we set off to our local "car supermarket", to have a closer look. We'd already seen the Multipla, and liked the appearance (I know, I know....) but as soon as we took it for a test drive, our decision was made. So that's the story..... but what made us decide on the Multipla?: 1. Versatility The Multipla, unlike any other car in it's class, seats 3 abreast in the front, and 3 abreast in the back. And the middle seat isn't "toddler-sized" either - it's a full-grown, independantly adjustable adult-sized seat. There's no feeling of being squashed at any time, even with 6
adults in the car (although the England Rugby Squad might possibly struggle a bit...) The middle seat in both the front and back fold down to create a handy table. Bizarrely, the hole in the middle is the perfect size for holding McDonalds Drinks trays in place! It gets better. The back seats, with a bit of fiddling, come out altogether, leaving an absolutely cavernous load space. 2. Driveability For such a big car, the Multipla actually handles very well. My version has a 2 litre diesel engine, which, for a diesel, has surprisingly good acceleration (particularly in second gear!) The increased width of the car means cornering is comfortable, without the swaying which often accompanies cornering in MPVs. Bizarrely, the width causes no problems at all with parking/driving along narrow streets etc. I was initially expecting trouble, but found I adapted to the extra width easily. One thing that didn't really strike me on the test drive was quite how high the Multipla is. I'm not sure whether it is due to the shape, but it never really struck me as such a big car. However, in queues of traffic, we now find ourselves looking down on many cars - we're actually at a similar height to the Toyota LandCruiser! The driving position is very comfortable, with an electrically-height-adjustable driver's seat, which is great fun to play with. Visibility is absolutely incredible, with huge expanses of glass surrounding the driver on all sides, and the support columns aren't too wide. The side mirrors are enormous, with an additional bit on the bottom focussed along the bottom of the car - great for judging distance from the kerb when parking! We've already taken the car on one longish journey, and found it very comfortable indeed. Usually, I end a journey feeling tired and achy, but I got out of the car feeling totally refreshed! AND NOW A BIG WARNING: Drivers of the Multipla, apparently, need to have held a full l
icence for over a year, otherwise they will not be insured. Bizarre but true. My wife is not pleased! 3. Uniqueness Well, there's no doubt there! But the unique appearance doesn't end on the exterior. If you look closely, you'll see the rather odd door handles, peeking over the window-sills. Then, you might spot the dashboard, centred in the car, rather than being in front of the driver. With bright colours, and those huge windows, you'll never see another car quite like it!!! 4. Usefulness For a young family, the Multipla is ideal - they've thought of everything, from wipe-clean surfaces on the back of the front seats (where little muddy feet tend to kick...) to the huge windows, allowing fantastic visibility for all occupants. The boot is surprisingly big, given the not-too-impressive length of the car, and as I've already mentioned, the ride is extremely comfortable. Oh, and all importantly - it averages 42 mpg - not bad for a car this size. 5. The Down-sides There must be some negatives.... And there are. The handbrake is to the right of the driver, between the seat and the door. If you're not careful, as you get out, your heel can hit the handbrake, releasing it. As I have discovered, this is not clever if you've parked on a slope. The fresh and funky layout is all very well, but there are a few moments when you wish you had better access to the controls. Two in particular - to operate the front electric windows, you have to slide your hand horizontally under the protruding door handle. And the dash-board mounted gearstick is all very well, but it does mean you have to fiddle around behind it to find the heating controls. And surprisingly for a car this size, there isn't an enormous amount of storage space, in terms of little cubbyholes etc. The two main storage areas (in front of the driver and front passenger) are smaller than in a standard ca
r, and the tiny storage bins above the sun-shades are only really useful for storing glasses. However, I'm in no doubt at all that the Multipla is the best car I've driven, and will give us many happy years of motoring. And at least if I'm driving it, I don't have to look at that ugly exterior!!!
OK, I admit it. I'm a technophile. I'm one of those people who believe something that has 20 extra buttons and 100 extra functions must be inherently better than something that doesn't. And so the time came to upgrade my basic, and, quite frankly, boring, Palm personal organiser (can't even recall which model it was - but it was black-and-white, and had hardly any memory with no expansion sockets...) And, as many technophiles do, I researched... and researched... and researched. In fact, I read around the subject so much, I almost forgot what it was I wanted one for in the first place. So what did I want? Affordable. Much as I love the top of the range Compaq Ipaq, I don't feel I can justify £500 to my wife. Function. I was sick of just having a portable address book/diary. I wanted easy connection to my PC, I wanted games, I wanted full colour screen, I wanted MP3 playback, and video, and photo storage. I wanted easy storage upgrades. Looks. Less important, but, hey, it has to look good too, right?!! And so after looking through websites and magazines endlessly, I settled on the Dell Axim. Why? If you compare raw power/memory, like for like, you'll see that the Dell Axim X5 Advanced is on a par with the top of the range pocket PCs, such as the IPaq. But it's less than half the price!! In fact, it's the same price as most machines with 1/3 or less of the memory/power capacity. That was the main draw. It also has support for Compact Flash/MMC and SD memory, so I could swap cards from my digital camera (SD), and also buy a cheaper CF card for permanent use in the Axim. Which reminds me - one slight low point of being a technophile is that you tend to "experiment" with your new toy a lot. Buy a large capacity storage card - you'll need it. My 256MB card is already full... In terms of connection to my PC (running XP, a
lthough it works with anything from Win 98 up, I believe), things really couldn't be simpler. The Dell Axim ships with a docking cradle, which looks lovely (with a nice blue light spelling out "Dell" on the front), but, in all fairness, is a bit fiddly to line up with the pocket PC during docking. Once the Axim is connected, the software takes care of updating all the information, synching with Microsoft Outlook 2002 (which is included with the Axim). THis takes care of the business side of things (Address Book, To Do List, Calendar, E-Mail Inbox). Then you can use the ActiveSync programme to add programs or files, use Microsoft MediaPlayer to download MP3s.... the world's your oyster, really. The screen is full colour, and generally brightness is very good. The viewing angle is quite narrow, so you can't really have more than one person watching the screen at a time, but looking directly, you find the images are sharp and the colours are clear. In fact, the output is so bright, I've occasionally used it as a makeshift torch in the dark... Sound quality from the inbuilt speaker is about as bad as you'd expect, but you can certainly recognise tunes etc. (despite slight distortion at higher volumes). Plug in the headphones, however, and you really notice a difference - the quality is fine - not quite CD, but perfectly OK for a portable device. Video playback depends on the compression and size of the original video, but is generally good. I've had a few clips "stutter", but these tend to be the bigger, higher quality ones, and, really, on a screen this size, they should have been compressed more. OK, so, there must be something to moan about, surely. How about the general design of Pocket PC 2003. As everyone knows when you finish with a programme in Windows, you tap the "X" in the top right, and the programme closes. Not in PPC03 it doesn't... It minimizes
. And so does every other programme that you open and then "close". Until, without realising it, you've got 8 programmes running, and a top of the range PPC running close to melt-down. There are free add-ons to easily close programmes down, but, to me, it seems a bit of a design fault in the programming. And sometimes the machine does move very slowly indeed. But then, I suppose we're used to powerful PCs, and this is only 400MHz.... Many people moan about the size of the Axim, saying it's too big to be a handheld. Actually, it's very comparable with the IPaq. Yes, it's chunky, and you'll know it's in your pocket, but I consider that a good thing... I'm less likely to lose it! As to the day to day use of my machine.... Text input is great. It uses one of 4 methods - text input via an onscreen keyboard, character recognition (like Palm-based machines), block recognition (a bit like that too...) and transcriber, which really cleverly takes your handwriting, and converts it to text - even in full sentences. The buttons are recessed, and not easily pressed by accident, although easily usable when needed. It goes without saying that all buttons can be reconfigured, as can the start menu, the desktop background, the sounds.... Battery life is goodish. Expect to get about 6 hours continual multimedia use out of the machine before recharging. (More if you're only using the diary etc.) As a general rule, I charge up each night - it also gives me a chance to download the day's news in the morning. All in all, if you're after a powerful pocket PC, which could easily be considered "top of the range", but at a fraction of the price, head to Dell.
I feel well-qualified to write about this subject. I'm a doctor (a GP). I'm also a smoker. Yes, I know. I've heard it all before. "You should know better..." "Don't you know it'll kill you..." But I have one question to the never-smoked non-smokers, who claim the habit is disgusting... If it's really as bad as you think, WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE SMOKE?!!! Aha, of course. The natural come-back to that question is "well, it's addictive, innit." And it is. It's very addictive. But that bypasses the fact that, to smokers, cigarette (or pipe, or cigar...) smoke smells, and tastes, quite nice. Yes, believe it or not, that horrible stench, that vile, dry, burning-leaf smell is actually something many smokers relish. There is an argument that this is the addiction fooling you - that actually no-one could possibly find the smell of burning tobacco attractive, and that the body just craves nicotine so much that it fools you into thinking it smells nice. But whatever the mechanism, many people continue to smoke not because they are addicted... but because they LIKE SMOKING. (Please excuse the occasional capital letters - I know it looks a bit Sunday Sportish, but some points deserve attention, in my view.) And that's not counting the psychological benefits - all of which, I admit, are percieved rather than real, but by quenching the craving for nicotine, there is a very palpable sense of "de-stressing" (the fact that smokers are generally more stressed anyway is beside the point...) Talking of points, let's shift track a bit here, and talk about the subject in hand - should smoking be banned in public places? In fact, as I drove to work this morning, there was a news article about this very thing... Well, despite (once again) being a smoker, I had a brief lull earlier this year, and gave up for 4 months. And I was shocked. Rat
her than craving a fag every time I passed someone smoking, I nearly gagged. Rather than asking for a puff on my wife's fag when she lit up, I almost chucked her out of the car, because I could hardly breathe. And this wasn't an act - I wasn't going down the "preaching ex-smoker" route - I just physically couldn't stand the smell. And it gave me an insight to what we smokers put non-smokers through day-in, day-out. As a dad, with a 2 year old, I do wonder what damage we're doing to her when we take her into a pub - even the non-smoking section, by and large, stinks of smoke. (OK, OK, we're probably doing more damage by being smoking parents, but we never, ever, smoke indoors). And even as a smoker, I get a bit annoyed by people lighting up while I'm eating. So, I concede, it IS a disgusting habit. It's filthy, smelly, and expensive. But as I've said above, lots of people still do it, so is a ban the right thing to do? Tricky. Our town shopping centre has recently become "non-smoking". Except, of course, the cafe in the middle, where people can smoke freely. Where's the logic in that?!! The cafe's not even closed off. So everyone has to pass by, through a haze of smoke. Why make the rest of it smoke-free?! And that's really my point with pub "Non-smoking sections". Unless the non-smokers are in a different room altogether, how will they benefit? So it's all or nothing. And, because I've had a taste (being the operative word) of being a non-smoker, I'd be inclined to say "ban it". Obviously, as a doctor, I'd also be inclined to say "ban it". But I'm not going to. Why? Well, there's this thing called human rights. It's legal to smoke. Fags are easily available. So to say someone can't smoke in public is not, in my opinion, a good thing to do. O
K, yo u could argue people aren't allowed to have sex in public, but I don't think the two really compare. And whenever I go out, I feel uneasy surrounded by loads of loud, inebriated people. So I think we should ban drinking in public places. Think of the problems that would cause. Actually, come to think of it, I don't like swearing much either, so let's ban that as well... And what happens if someone breaks the rules? Prison? A fine? Hey, that's going to be a great moneyspinner for the Government isn't it? Because, quite frankly, people will carry on smoking in public. And so the already-stretched police department will need to have 24 hour patrols in town-centres, purely to catch those naughty smokers. Wow. There's a useful way to waste time and money. Maybe the Government will set up a "Smoking Unit" - specialist police trained in cigarette-extinguishing, packet-confiscating, and how to cuff a smoker without getting ash on your uniform. I think the whole concept is ridiculous. But I can see why people want to do it. Smoking kills. Passive smoking kills. Smokers have a choice (ish...). Passive smokers do not. I don't think the solution lies in banning smoking in public places, or raising the cost of fags to £45/pack (believe me, people will still buy...) No, the solution lies at source. As long as the fag manufacturers are making billions, as long as the Government get loads of nice tax, cigarettes will still be made, and people will still buy them. Cigarettes are part of life now, and people will still want to smoke them, whether we want them to stop or not. Even a total ban means some clever backstreet people will find ways of manufactuing them on the black market. They aren't going to go away... So what do I propose? A half-way house. Ban fags in many places, by all means. Ban them in some pubs, clubs and restaurants. But give the s
mokers SOM EWHERE to go. (There are those capitals again...) Set up "smoking houses" - pubs where you can smoke. Everyone needs a choice, and some people choose to smoke. To deny them the opportunity when they are out enjoying themselves is just plain wrong. And that's me done. Got to go - doing my prescriptions for nicotine patches...
I'd never been to Butlins before this month. And for some strange reason (partly fueled, I suspect, by large quantities of alcohol), my wife and I, her parents, her cousins, plus cousin's girlfriend and 5 month old baby, and of course our 2 yr old, Emily, decided to take a pilgrimage to Minehead in early June "for a break". To be honest, I didn't really know what to expect from Butlins. I thought it would be cheap and tacky, and full of the sort of people who make me sound like a snob when I talk about them. I knew Exmoor - I'd hiked there several times, so knew that if the worst came to the worst, we could always explore the surroundings. Anyway, to Butlins, and after a fairly awful journey (M5 - have you EVER been on it when there haven't been any roadworks?!), we arrived in Minehead. The resort is sited directly on the seafront, and our first impressions were very favourable. We were greeted by the most obviously camp redcoat, and proceeded into the carpark, having been given our weekly programme and car label. The "booking in" procedure was remarkably smooth - we'd parked the car, got our keys and found the accomodation within about 10 minutes. The booking in desks are now sited in the huge "Skyline" Pavillion - the centre of the resort. This gives you your first impression of Butlins (your home for the next week). And my first impression of the Skyline was.... noise. Very. It seemed to be a mishmash of flashing lights, shouting voices, music, screaming kids, electronic beeps... although I'm the first to admit that it could get very wearing, it actually heightened the excitement for our whole party. After collecting the keys, we reparked the car nearer (slightly) to the accomodation, and grabbed a red trolley to shift our stuff into the "silver bungalows" we had chosen. That was a low point. The trek between the car and the accomodation was about 400m -
it doesn't sound like much, but after a few trips with heavy luggage, it felt like miles... The accomodation, quite surprisingly, was very clean, and in a good state of repair. After settling in, and letting Emily play around on the adjacent climbing frame, we set off to explore. As previously mentioned, the Skyline is the "centre" of the resort. It houses the 3 entertainment zones - the huge Centrestage, the more "clubby"-feeling Reds, and the Skyline stage. It also houses most of the eating places (Harry Ramsdens, Burger King...) a couple of pub/bars, numerous amusement arcades, many shops... plus the much visited (by our party anyway) Scalectrix Tournament track!!! While in the Skyline, we got our first taste of the redcoat entertainments, and, in all honesty, I am now a lifelong fan of anyone who has been a redcoat. I think they are incredibly talented, extremely overworked and underpaid, and have to contend with drunk adults, tantruming children and general moans and groans day in day out. So, venturing out of the Skyline (which we were able to do, thanks to fairly good weather), we saw the fairground (all rides being free, but the "side-shows" cost extra). In fairness, I've seen better fairs, but there were still the standard dodgems, waltzers, carousel etc... as well as a couple of "adrenaline"-type rides. Attached to the fair was yet another amusement arcade, and slightly further down were the Go-Karts (£4/ride) and the cinema (showing the Matrix Reloaded while we were there, so pretty up to date). Heading out of the Skyline in a different direction, you hit the entrance to Reds, Noddy-land (a small, roofed fairground area for preschoolers, which we struggled to tear Emily away from!), and then the LaserQuest zone (again, we frequented this almost daily!!!) The LaserQuest cost extra, and some of the guns were a bit tatty, but it was still great fun!!! Circling r
ound the LaserQuest arena, towards the accomodation blocks, you next hit the multi-sports court - a fantastically designed sports area, primarily for football and basketball, with about 8-10 enclosed courts/pitches. Continuing along the edge of the Skyline Pavillion, past the display of caravans for sale (all of which look very nice, but we weren't really tempted!!!), you then pass another few pubs/bars, another amusement arcade, a children's "learn to drive" go-kart track, the children's adventure playground, which we were very disappointed to be too tall for, and then you head for the swimming pool. The pool complex is enormous, but, sadly, seems to be pretty busy most of the time. With 3 different flume rides, plus an "inflatable boat" flume, a river rapids float, a wave machine, and several small, shallow children's zones, there's plenty for everyone. I confess to meeting my match in the SpaceBowl, a flume where you reach 40mph, before spinning round and round a huge bowl. Scared?!! Me?! And I haven't even mentioned the soft play area in the Skyline, the small stalls selling everything from a "Make your own pop video" to a family portrait, the free snooker tables and table tennis, the rental place, where you can hire (very cheaply) anything from bikes and disability scooters to boule sets and stereos. And how do Butlins deal with complaints. Very efficiently... We were meant to be given an extra bed for Emily. We weren't. Trying to settle her in a travel cot didn't work at all. So we went to the accomodation office. The next day, we were put in 2 3 bedroom bungalows. Bearing in mind there were 4 adults and 1 child in one bungalow, 3 adults and 1 baby in another, we felt that was an extremely generous move, and we were very impressed. I now realise I've written the whole review without mentioning the evening entertainment. It was good, they are all ve
ry talented, some of it was really cheesy, the venues are spectacular (they must have hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of lighting/AV equipment etc.) The downside to the evening entertainment is the price of drinks, but you can pick up a 4 1/2 pint pitcher of lager for £9.99 currently, which isn't bad. And I defy any red-blooded male not to "fall in lust" with one of the redcoats at some point. I'm trying to convince my wife to book again for next year, but having just read the previous sentence, she's a bit reluctant. Oh well, there's 2005, I suppose...
A few years ago, my parents bought me a traditional upright piano as a wedding present (quite what my now ex-wife got out of it, I don't know - I guess it was somewhere to put photos/vases etc.). Then, my marriage split up (it's in another op, if you want the details!). Working as a doctor, I moved into hospital accomodation - and for obvious reasons, couldn't figure out what to do with the piano. (She wasn't having it, that's for sure!) After lengthy discussions with my parents, we decided to trade the piano in for a Clavinova - the CVP201 to be exact. I ended up adding a bit to the cost, because it was a bit more than the piano, but we felt that it would be more portable, and take up less room than a traditional piano. And it is. It lived quite happily in hospital accomodation with me, moved without a hitch into my first home, and then again into my new home. But, having ferried it around quite a bit (both moving, and when I've needed to "perform" anywhere - pubs, weddings etc.), it turns out to be heavy. Very heavy. Fortunately, the stand quite easily detatches from the main unit (just a couple of screws holding it in place), but at 54kg, it's quite a feat to shift it on your own. Having said that, it's now been battered against walls, doors, and, on occasion, concrete traffic bollards (don't ask), and, except the obvious cosmetic damage, it still plays well. OK, so that's the physical bit done with. What's it actually like to play? What does it do? According to the official blurb, the CVP201 has 64 note polyphony, meaning 64 notes can be played at once. If you are ever in the position where you NEED to play 64 notes at once, I don't envy you at all. However, this number is important if you use the Clavinova for recording multiple tracks - more of that later... What I didn't want to end up with is a keyboard with poor touch-sensitivity. Any musician will agree that if you can'
;t put enough emphasis on certain notes, the music sounds flat and dull. The Clavinova has weighted keys, which, surprisingly, do feel remarkably like a traditional pianos, and the touch sensitivity ("Graded Hammer Action") is actually remarkably good. Obviously, it goes without saying that the Clavinova has a full, 88 note keyboard. But I've said it anyway. In "Piano" mode, it is fairly tricky to tell the difference between a Clavinova and a standard, non-digital piano. Perhaps this is why Jools Holland prefers to record tracks using a Clavinova. And I suppose a big plus (memories from childhood here...) is that you don't have to fork out cash for retuning every so often. People who say there is no "richness of sound" with a Clavinova, obviously haven't actually heard a Clavinova being played. Sure, if you play a Steinway Grand, it'll sound better, but the Clavinova is more than a match for your bog-standard home upright. But, of course, I didn't get the CVP201 to play as a piano. Oh no. Because it does much more than that. And I'm a gadget freak... The 201 has 195 main voices (instruments). These are split into sections, such as Piano, Strings, Brass, Organ etc. The range of voices is incredible. Some are appalling, and you'll never, ever use them. Others are fantastic, and perfectly mimic the instruments they have been sampled from (violin, trumpet etc.) And then the last section is "XG". It took me a little while to figure out what XG actually is - apparently it's some form of synthesis. Anyway, by using XG, you have access to another 480 voices. Yes, 480. They don't sound quite so good, but there are some pretty nice (and weird) sounds hidden away in there. There are also 125 different rhythm styles, ranging from pop, through rock and jazz, to ballroom, latin and traditional waltzes etc... Oh and "Pop Ballad 1" is based on "Every Breath Yo
u Take", by the way. By playing around with the detailed settings, you can set different volumes for the drums, bass, harmony one and harmony two tracks within the rhythm setting, and each style has variation A, variation B, an introduction, a fill-in and an ending. It's in triggering the rhythm track that things become really clever. Anyone who has played an electric keyboard will know the traditional way to trigger chord sequences is by splitting the keyboard, and pressing either one-note chords with the left hand, or by actually fingering the chords, while playing the melody with the right hand. And you can do this. If you want... But, as a reasonably OK pianist, I wanted to do more. And the Clavinova, by some very clever trick, allows you to play a normal piece of music, both hands together, and picks up the dominant chord, laying down an appropriate backing track. And after a couple of years messing around, I can confidently say - it very rarely messes things up. And this, in my opinion, is the key to making you sound good. You can make things as complicated as you like, but the Rhythm Tracks are sufficiently complex and variable to make even a one-fingered pianist sound good. Other stuff? You want more? OK... How about layering - playing two instruments together. Boring? Yeah, I guess so, and in all honesty, some of the reverb is lost when you play certain instruments together, so the music can sound less realistic. What about splitting the keyboard - playing, for example, the bass with the left hand, and a guitar with the right. Pretty cool, but sounds awful when you forget where you've set the dividing note... Reverb and chorus - making your instrument sound echoey (like a huge hall), or dull (padded cell?!) Harmony - can't be used when the rhythm track is on, but for solo playing, adds second notes, third notes, octaves, a choir, strings... very cool for "mellow jazz" if you turn the "four-par
t jazz" setting on. Did I mention recording multiple tracks. Yeah, I think I did... By slotting in a standard floppy disc, you can record up to 16 tracks to disc, with real-time recording (adding layers of new tracks to your previous ones). All different instruments if you want. Changes of rhythm style are recorded as well, so fill-ins appear in the right place. Or, if you're really lazy, just download some MIDI files from the internet, put them on a floppy, and load it into the Clavinova - instant MIDI jukebox, and I guarantee it'll sound better than on your PC. (The Clavinova Demo Songs are amazing as well...) Surely, there can't be more? Oh, but there is. Much more. How about registration memory - by storing instrument, reverb and rhythm settings, you can swap between them with a single button press. Computer connectivity. As expected, Clavinovas are MIDI compatible, so you can link the Clavinova to a computer by cable, and transcribe music as you play... (with the right software - cable and software not included as standard). But surely this is really complicated? Not really. The key to using the Clavinova (apart from reading the manual cover to cover) is the small rotating disc in the middle, under the LCD display. From this, you can set tempo, change instruments and rhythms, set up tracks for recording, change system volumes, name tracks, alter function of the middle pedal (how about setting it up to start and stop the rhythm whenever you press the pedal?), transpose up or down, up to an octave either way, fine tune to match an instrument, or to play along to a CD.... you name it. In summary, this is one of my most favouritest things in the world. If you're an experienced musician, you'll find more than enough to keep you occupied. If you're a beginner, Clavinova have produced Tuition Discs..... You mean I haven't told you about tuition. OK. Quickly then, I've got to g
o. There are little LEDs above each note. If you play a MIDI file, one or two tracks will light up corresponding to the key presses (This is meant to represent L and R hands). Tuition discs come with music, and you can either follow the notes, or preset the machine to hold the music until the correct note is pressed. And you can do this with L or R hand, or both together. So, potentially, you can have "London Bridge is Falling Down" with a full orchestral backing, as if the orchestra is waiting for you, (the star performer) to hit the right note. Believe me, my explanation didn't do it justice - it's very clever. Anyway, enough from me. If you're even slightly interested, pop into a good music store, and ask to have a look. It's the only way you'll make sense of what I've said. And if you're not musical at all, try to take someone who is. Let them have a play.
Eliza Carthy, it's fair to say, is not a particularly well-known artist. Unless you happen to be into traditional folk music (she comes from one of the best-respected folk music "families"). And it's also fair to say that not everyone will like this CD. But I'd encourage everyone to at least give it a try. Eliza is known for her blue hair and her fiddle-playing. She's also known for traditional folk singing, so this album came out of the blue (if you'll excuse the pun). Yes, it's still a bit folky, and, quite frankly, some of it is a bit weird, but if you relate to the music at all, you'll find it to be quite moving, in a funny sort of way. The songs vary from the sublimely simple to the more classic "pop" style, mixing in ambient synthesisers and, occasionally, full orchestral scores. I've heard it described as "folk plus plus", which seems to sum it up nicely. Generally, the music is gentle (notable exceptions including "Beautiful Girl"), but the lyrics are anything but. Eliza, a good ol' Yorkshire Lass, lets her accent shine through in a similar way to Cerys from Catatonia - you are in no doubt where she comes from. This may affect your listening pleasure in different ways - some might be driven mad, others will find it rather... um... endearing.(?). Topics range from offering sexual favours in order to gain affection from men, to the "beautiful people" featured in the media these days. She also covers Paul Wellar's "Wild Wood" in a very competent way, although many would, no doubt, prefer the original. I've also heard criticism of the heavy string backing on "In the Company of Men" - personally, I feel this is an ambitious track, which she carries off well, and is one of my personal highlights. Be aware though, although gentle, this is by no means an "Easy Listening" album. It draws the listener
in, forcing them to consider the lyrics, and the subtle violin solos. I have to admit I was unsure about the album for the first couple of plays, but after that, you find yourself coming back for more. And some of it is wrist-cuttingly miserable. But Eliza has cleverly interspersed all this desperate misery with upbeat songs of hope and happiness - which initially hit you like a sledgehammer, but significantly lift your mood, ready for the assault of the next track! I think anyone listening to this album would need to have at least some appreciation for folk music to really enjoy it, but the album fuses so many different styles and instruments, that there should be something for everyone. Oh, and with regards to my title - don't play "In the Company of Men" in the company of small children - there's a rude word in there.
As I near my twilight years (OK, 30s), the time has come to put down in writing what I thought of the late 70s/early 80s which comprised my childhood. And I suppose the first question would have to be? Was it good, or was it bad? I suppose, like most people, the answer would be, a bit of both. One of my earliest school memories was lining up for dinner as an infant, being hit over the head by the older children who were shouting "Hit me with your rhythm stick" - it took me years to realise that this was actually a song. Sadly, bullying remained a theme in my life until I hit about 14-15. I went to a fairly rough school in Berkshire, where my accent (BBC English, dah-ling!) was almost immediately picked up on. I still remember the chants of "Posh-o!" as I was kicked in the backside by a girl wearing the most incredibly sharp stilleto shoes. (all the rage in 1980 I understand). I remember, later (must have been around 8 or 9), being punched in the stomach whilst standing at the urinals, and doubling over onto the rather damp floor. Despite that, I enjoyed school, and was good at most subjects. Except PE. Not PE. Later memories (from secondary school), include playing rugby in the middle of a hailstorm - one of the most intensely painful experiences I've ever had. Cross Country - OK when the weather was good, felt more like SAS selection in the pouring rain. Football - I could never quite get the hang of it, and I nearly broke my finger when I was in goal. But enough about me and my misfortune. Surely I should be writing about things you'll all remember with fondness in your hearts. So here goes. The summers were hot. Really hot. I remember the tarmac melting, and the dog-poo turning white. I remember playing outside with our Chopper bikes and Space-Hoppers. And of course, the Action Man figures, who were never far from us. I was so proud of my "Eagle-Eye" Action Man with a pul
l-cord to trigger one of six phrases. Until the cord fell off. Summers also meant trips to the seaside. The sand was fine and white - the sea was fresh and clean. Or seemed to be. I remember mum and dad shouting at my sister and I for playing next to a raw sewage outlet pipe. But as children, we didn't notice. I miss the naiivity of being a child. In the late 70s, drug use in seaside towns must have been rife, but we were blissfully unaware. In fact I've only just considered it. Strange, that... And winters? 2 Christmas's (one with one set of Grandparents, one with another). Presents were great! (Cousins presents were, of course, always better). Snow meant sledging, at best, on your friend's "Formula One" plastic bobsled. At worst, on a black binliner. I remember going over a frozen molehill one winter on a binliner - another painful experience - in fact, it's a wonder I'm still alive. The cars of the time - made to bring on travel-sickness, I'm convinced. They all smelt funny. There was no such thing as air conditioning (in many cases, there was no heating, either). We had a Morris Ital (anyone remember them?!), which almost always had a wet, smelly dog in the boot. Holidays were great, but we rarely went abroad, until we were older. It was the Lake District, Dartmoor, the Seaside... The clothes - as a young boy, to be honest, I didn't really notice clothes - until I look back now at those appalling photos!!! TV - Ah! The memories. Multicoloured Swap Shop with Noel and Keith. Proper Blue Peter - Peter Duncan, Simon Groom... Doctor Who (Tom Baker will never be bettered). The Muppet Show. And then, later, Knight Rider, Streethawk, A-Team, Airwolf, Manimal.... Top of the Pops - the highlight of my week, shouting "That's good" "That's rubbish" at the TV screen (actually, I still do that!) Watching Ski Sunday the evening before school restarted for the week. With
crumpets and jam, little cocktail sausages and crisps. Enid Blyton - Secret Seven and Famous Five. Pretending to be the Secret Seven, or the Hardy Boys. Swallows and Amazons. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Piano Lessons. Horse riding (until I was thrown into a barbed wire fence - accident prone, aren't I?!) Setting off bangers at school. Marathon Bars (much nicer than Snickers). Wagon Wheels which were huge. Sparkle Ice Lollies - Lemonade or Orangeade. Recording Top of the Pops Christmas Special 1981 with my new "portable cassette recorder" - Adam and the Ants, Shakin' Stevens, John Lennon... Getting my first Scalextric Set. Oh, those happy memories.
I'm a doctor. So my personal beliefs about medical records are based, in part, on what the legalities are regarding entitlement to view. Currently, there are very few people who are entitled to unrestricted access to a patient's medical notes, and in very few circumstances. One is the patient. Another is me (of course!). And the third is in certain legal proceedings (although not all). Many insurance companies request a Doctor's report. This is broken down into sections, allowing the doctor to divulge certain information, but also enabling him/her to withold irrelevant information. As doctors, we are not entitled to fill in this report without the written consent of the patient. I understand the difficult situation insurance companies are put in. I'll be honest, if I didn't already have life insurance (I do) and I was suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, I'd be highly tempted to apply, and just "skip over" the recent diagnosis. Wouldn't you? So there has to be a safety-net in place somewhere. And that's where the doctor comes in. As we've established, your GP is one person who has total, unrestricted access to your medical notes. That may well be a frightening thought (if you met me, it'd be a terrifying thought...), but as we are allowed access, and we're medically trained, surely we should be the ones to confirm or deny suitability for life insurance. Forget all the (several pages long) forms to fill in. I can browse someone's notes in 10 minutes, and would then be able to write a note to the insurance company saying either "yes, go ahead", or "no, this patient's ill". Surely no more clarification is necessary. And as to the question of fraudulent GPs being bribed to falsify reports.... in all honesty, I'm sure it happens already, and I suppose my method would make it even easier, but if a GP was found to have done that, he/she would undoubtedly be stru
ck off. There is no reason I can think of why insurance companies would require unrestricted access to a patient's full medical history. In fact, there are several reasons why it would be a bad idea. Two in particular: One: By allowing the GP to fill a form in, he/she is the one wasting time sifting through completely irrelevant letters and consultations. If a specific employee of the company was employed to do that for every applicant, he'd run out of time. Two: How do the notes get to the company. Transport of medical notes is always a dodgy issue, and the photocopying costs alone would be extortionate, let alone transport costs. (when compared to an envelope with a form inside...) Moving on to DNA testing. I think we all have to accept this is something which will become more commonplace in the future. We've already discovered the Alzheimers Disease Gene, and several cancer-related genes, and more is being discovered daily. My personal view is that this is fortune-telling, at un-necessary cost. Sure, having a problematic gene might predispose you to a certain condition, or you might be carrying a disease, but that might not be what kills you. Hey, you might be run over by a bus - what's next? - the insurance companies follow you around, and base your premiums on how many roads you cross every day? There are only so many factors that can feasibly be taken into consideration. DNA testing is expensive, time-consuming, and, in all honesty, is likely to remain so for quite some time. I personally don't want to know if I've got a cancer gene. In summary, my personal belief is that if the doctor says it's OK to insure a person's life, then that should be satisfactory. No extra tests. No notes changing hands. As to what I think WILL happen. By 2004, we will be introducing a "Patient Held Medical Card", like a credit card, which holds your medical notes. Then, it'll be much easier
for insurance companies to quickly scan it into their computers and draw out relevant information. It'll also make our lives much easier, because filling in these forms is fairly time-consuming (and mind-numbingly boring). Technology, eh?
It's been a little while since I felt the need to write an opinion on a PS2 game, but I felt I had to put fingers to keyboard to tell you all about the most enjoyable gaming experience I have had in a long time. Most of you will have heard of Grand Theft Auto - either from the older releases, or from the occasional TV adverts for the newest edition, Vice City. And, if you've seen the adverts, you'll probably agree - that looks pretty cool. You ain't seen nothing yet! Having now completed 56% of the game and spent 30 hours doing so, I feel qualified to tell you about it, why you need it, and how to complete it.... no, I'm lying - you won't find any spoilers from me - so the storyline and hints and tips are strictly off-limits. Firstly, an apology. This opinion may be a bit lengthy. That's because the game itself is huge! Enormous! Unbelievably vast!!! Back to the very beginning. You play Tommy Vercetti, an ex-con, who has moved to Vice City to make his fortune. Having been swindled in a drugs deal, he finds himself owing his employer a lot of money, and so begins his climb to the top of the crime tree in Vice City. He does this by driving (a lot), walking/running (quite a bit), flying (occasionally), beating people up (depends on how you want to play it...), stealing cars (ditto), robbing shops, sleeping with "ladies of the night", and, later (for me, one of the highlights), owning and running businesses. Told you it was big. What's Vice City like? ------------------------- GTA:VC is set in the 1980s, so neon features a lot, as do suits with the sleeves rolled up, bikinis, and.... 80s music. Many people believe the in-game radio stations make the game special. The makers have even released a 7-CD set of the radio soundtracks. They all feature genuine 80s hits in a variety of styles from "Esperanto - Latin Music" to "Rock FM - Heav
y Metal"... plus two very nostalgic pop stations. The cars, clothes, even the buildings live up to the 80's "glamourous" image. Very cool. The question is.. can it ever be bettered as a setting? The people in Vice City behave as normal people would - changing their clothes in the evening and in stormy weather, running away from violent incidents (unless they happen to be gang members, of course...). You can even help the police catch other criminals, if you feel community-spirited enough to do so. The police seem more intelligent in this version than in other games, and it can make things very tricky indeed. And some Vice City residents resist being car-jacked rather strongly... The City itself contains a variety of different areas, from slum-like Little Haiti, to posh shopping region Downtown, from the Docks to the Airport. There's a lot to explore, so lets get started... Controls ---------- The controls are generally pretty simple. Driving physics are good - easy enough to be enjoyable, but tricky enough to cause major hassles in heavy traffic or tight corners. Walking and running has been vastly improved since the last version (GTAIII), but you occasionally find the camera angle wanders off on its own a bit. Hand to hand fighting can be frustrating, but is made much more enjoyable by the ability to purchase/steal/find "melee weapons" such as hammers, baseball bats and even a katana. Shooting has been made a lot simpler - the auto-aim feature has been upgraded, and, with weapons which utilize this (pistols, SMGs and shotguns), it is quite easy to wipe out a whole gang of enemies. Other weapons use manual aiming, which again is pretty easy to get used to. Flight (joy of joys!) is, again, pretty easy. It takes a bit of getting used to, but, once mastered, allows you a lot more freedom. So what transport can I use? --------------------------------- One downfall of GTA:VC is the lack
of licencing - so no real vehicle names appear in the game. Having said that, the designers have done a good job of making cars look very much like their real counterparts, so, even though it says you're driving an Inferno, you know it's really a Lamborghini)... There are too many 4-wheeled vehicles to mention, ranging from the slow family sedans to the super-speedy sports cars. If you're really careful, you can even nab yourself army trucks, FBI cars (armoured), and much later, a tank. Other quirky cars include the baggage handler and an ice cream van. A new addition to the GTA garage is..... motorbikes! OK, so falling off a motorbike hurts (sometimes quite a lot), but.... how cool is that?! You can even perform wheelies and stoppies. There are fewer bikes to choose from, but they include a scooter, a Harley-lookalike, a sports bike, and even a Pizza Delivery scooter. GTA:VC uses the water a lot, as well, so there are a range of water-borne vehicles to choose from. No hovercrafts yet (next time?), but certainly a variety of different sizes and shapes to choose from. And then there are the helicopters! Again, a few different types, and you have to hunt them down, but once you've got one, you'll wonder what you ever did without it. OK, enough already. What do I actually do? -------------------------------------------------- Well, it's not all about stealing cars, killing people, and generally causing mayhem. Oh no. There is a main mission stem, allowing you to unlock extra bits. There are side-missions and extra missions, diverting you from the true course, but giving you much-needed cash and giving you entertainment at the same time. Then you can spend some time collectiing hidden items (and they're well-hidden in some cases, believe me!), performing "Unique Stunts", and completing mini-games and challenges, such as remote-controlled car/plane races. And then there are the businesses, but more of
those later... You mentioned cash? ------------------------ Did I? Oh yeah. Well, in previous games, cash flooded in from all angles. Hit a car - 50 bucks. Blow up a bus - 500 bucks. Run over a pedestrian - 20 bucks. It was, quite frankly, daft. All you had to do to make some serious wonga was cause as much mayhem and damage as possible. But VC has refined this. You don't get rewarded, unless you deserve rewarding. Completing missions will get you cash. If you kill a pedestrian, you can collect the money he/she happens to have on them (could be $5, could be $500). And the businesses earn you cash (later, I said!). But having cash is useful. Very useful. Why? ------ Why? Because, instead of having certain save-game points in the game, you get to buy properties in which you can save the game. Obviously, not all properties are for sale - that would be daft, but there's a selection scattered throughout the town. Also, you can buy a wide range of weaponry from the now-infamous Ammunation Stores. And believe me, for some parts of the game, you'll need a lot of weaponry. Oh, and you can also change clothes as well. And you could save up the cash to buy businesses. Tell us about the businesses, please. ------------------------------------------ Well, OK, if you insist. After completing a certain number of missions, you are able to purchase businesses. Once you buy them, you have to complete a task or a few missions. Once you've done this, the business earns money for you. The money builds up on the doorstep of the business up to a maximum of a few thousand (depending on the business) every day. If you collect it every day, it starts again. If not, it just stops at the maximum until you do collect, then starts again. (Did that make sense). Once you have completed all businesses, you can potentially bring in tens of thousands of dollars every day. Which is nice. Businesses range from Strip Joints to Car S
howrooms, and the missions, by and large, are great fun. As I said earlier - this is a pivotal part of the game, and, in my opinion, lifts it from great to fantastic. Anything else to say? ------------------------ Buy the game. Just buy it. I can't describe what it's like to play. I can't describe the fun, or the addictiveness of it. In fact, even now, my PS2 thumbs are itching to get back and play some more. Just to find that last hidden object.....
I recently read an article on parenting, which suggested you should limit childrens TV viewing to 1 hour per day. Hah! Try telling my 20 month old daughter Emily that! Emily, is addicted to a certain channel. We're trying hard to wean her off. "Cold turkey" didn't work, so we're gradually reducing the hours, but, as busy parents, it's all too easy to sit your child in front of the box. So what is it about CBeebies which makes it such compelling viewing? Why does Emily call out for the odd shape-changing yellow blobs with eyes (The CBeebies, or in Emily's native tongue - "Beeby!") and their similarly primary-coloured chums? Having been subjected to hours (every day), I feel qualified to let you know. For those of you not in the know, CBeebies is a Satellite/Cable channel (599 on NTL, fact-finders! - see - I've even memorized the number!) which shows nothing but pre-school entertainment throughout the day. The Beebies themselves (you may have seen them popping up occasionally on terrestrial childrens BBC) are little time-fillers between programs, but Emily seems to like them just as much. In truth, they are far more entertaining than the inter-program presenters - who, by and large, can't sing, can't dance, can barely read an autocue, and have, on occasion, unsettled Emily enough to make her leave the room (having said that, it doesn't take much to make her do that these days...) The programs range from the well-established kiddies favourites (Teletubbies, Bob the Builder, Tweenies), to slightly less well-known ones (Ballymory, Storymakers, Brum). Generally, all programs are well-made, and production quality is good. Educational value is variable, but Emily certainly seems to be learning a lot from watching - she spent a whole week wishing everyone a "'appy burday" after hearing the "Birthday Song". Some of the features are, quite frankly,
odd - recently we switched over because my wife couldn't stand the video footage of ants swarming all over a jungle floor. And it's not restricted to children - very occasionally (OK, quite rarely), there are flashes of pure adult comedy. Prime examples being a young Zoe Ball on Playdays eyeing up the groin region of a male Gladiator and muttering - "Not bad, not bad at all!" (I think she was supposed to be commenting on his ability to jump around). The Shiny Show also provides some top quality moments - the three stars, Mucker, Tigs and Dogsby should be given a primetime terrestrial TV slot, in my opinion. Strangely, CBeebies becomes addictive for adults too - not quite as pleasant, but unavoidable. You begin to develop affections and dislikes for characters - Bella from the Tweenies is far too bossy. Milo's cool. You begin to wonder about whether Brum ever visits the seedier areas of Birmingham, or whether he just hangs around Brindley Place (a bit of local knowledge never goes amis). You wonder why Clifford The Big Red Dog never empties his bowels, and what would happen if he did (well, he is the size of a house!)..... am I sounding completely mad yet? Even our friends, on arrival, scorn CBeebies, and then, within minutes, are hooked on the storyline. Without the aid of alcohol, I might add. It's probably helped by Emily's commentary - "Oh. Poor dog." "Oh. Flower." "Oh. Beeby!" Back to my initial point - is Emily viewing too much? I think not. I think most of the programs on CBeebies are sufficiently interactive that familys can watch together (anyone own up to remembering "Watch with Mother"?), she's learning vocabulary from the characters (Teletubbies excepted, of course), and she's even beginning to learn to dance, thanks to the Tweenies. In summary, CBeebies rules! And sometimes, when Emily's in bed, it's quite an effort to ch
ange channels.... No, OK, I wouldn't quite go that far!
Ever since RI:SE replaced The Big Breakfast as the Channel 4 Early Morning show, I have been tempted to write an op. So this week, I sat down, determined to watch an entire show. And I admit it, I only lasted 20 minutes. However, in my brief glimpses into this dire broadcasting travesty, I feel able to draw a few conclusions... RI:SE seems to be unaware of either it's target audience or the general feel of the show. I'm guessing it, like Big Breakfast, is aimed at the "Young Adult" sector - which suggests that, like Big Breakfast, it should be bright, colourful, improvised, occasionally humorous, and easy to digest. Not a bit of it. The presenters (all of whom have less character than almost any other TV presenter I have ever seen), sit behind a huge curved desk, instantly giving the programme a "formal" feel - even GMTV uses sofas, for God's sake! The content is similarly abysmal. One nice touch is the scrolling headlines bar at the bottom of the screen - but I feel this might be more valuable if the headlines were of important news stories. But then, of course, we might think that's boring. The regular "News" items in RI:SE comprise of 30 second bursts of sensationalist, News of The World-style tabloid trash. You thought Big Breakfast dealt with news quickly - at least they talked about real issues, even if they didn't do so in depth. And as to the "features". Obviously at the moment, Big Brother is a Big Issue, but I'm not entirely convinced that a "Topical Early Morning Entertainment Show" such as RI:SE should spend the entire morning discussing BB. (Big Brother's Big Brother, so to speak). I can only assume that Channel 4 are so desperate to enhance the viewing figures of this appalling show, that they erroneously assume by featuring one of their most popular shows, they'll get more viewers. Another of my big probl
ems with the show, and the one that ultimately "forced" me to switch over, was the unthinking nastiness of the presenters. Big Breakfast (at it's prime, anyway), did it well. Yes, they insulted some guests, but they did it (generally) in an amusing way, and, most of the time, it made reasonable viewing. But RI:SE is no more than bullying and sheer cruelty. An example from this morning came from an interview with Tim from Big Brother (albeit a worthy target...) "Tell Tim his hair's Mingin'" shouted one of the studio presenters to the outside broadcast team. "It's always been crap, but now it's even worse." She could have been talking about Channel 4's Breakfast Show... As I said, everyone has their favourite morning shows. (Some poor souls don't even switch their TVs on in the morning!!!) BBC1 caters for sensible news types, GMTV on ITV caters for the "Daily Mail" - celebrity mixed with serious issue types, and I can only assume Channel 4, as I stated earlier, targets the Ibiza, getting drunk, Sun/Mirror/News of the World type. But, in all honesty, I don't think it even does that very well. So, steps to improve RI:SE before it's too late. 1. Get some decent presenters. Preferably well-known ones. Yes, you got it right with Chris Evans years ago, but you're way off the mark here. 2. Add some variety. Sure, Big Brother's great, but lets have something else to watch, please. 3. News is important. Even to young adults. Particularly if it's presented in an easy to view way. Let us know what's really going on in the world. 4. Get rid of that desk, and get some comfy chairs in. 5. ...... oh, to hell with it - just take it off the air. And what do I watch in the morning? Children's programmes with my 15 month old daughter. Much better!
I've been tempted to write an op in this category for some time now, but today, it seems more appropriate than ever. I'm a doctor. I've got this afternoon off to go to my wife's grandmother's funeral. I've also just seen a man with cancer. He's only just found out. And then, as some of you may know, my Mum's dying of melanoma. So I've had plenty of opportunities to think about what happens after someone dies. I can't begin to debate life after death without mentioning religion. I've been confirmed into the Church of England. Like many, I don't go to church often, but still view christianity as my "core religion". Views on life after death vary considerably. Some believe in reincarnation - that you come back as someone or something else. Evidence for this is suggested by hypnosis, in which people recount incredible details from "previous lives". In some cases, these details are not known about until much later (locations of buildings, contents of documents), when they are uncovered by archaeologists. Seems convincing. But I don't really believe that. Some believe in heaven (or valhalla, or nirvana...) and hell. As a christian, I suppose that's the view I should take. But I refuse to believe in the "pearly gates" vs "eternal fires of hell" belief system. Most views on "life after death" come from the belief that a person's "soul" is a seperate entity to their "body" or shell. Now that's the first thing I believe. I've seen many people die as part of my job. I've seen the moment when, in my view, the soul leaves the body. Medically, the eyes become fixed at the moment of death. Non-medically, you can see something change in a person's face at the moment of death. I do believe that when a body is cremated or buried, it is just that - a body. The soul - the person's ch
aracter and qualities and values, has gone elsewhere. But where? Do souls just float around aimlessly? Are they aware of floating around, or not? Can they choose where to float? Obviously, there are no answers to this, but, again, I have my doubts. As to "near-death experiences" - I agree, there seems to be some convincing evidence for this, but I personally believe that if there is a God, He knows when someone is going to die, and when they aren't, and he's unlikely to make mistakes ("I'm coming to get you... oh, no, actually, I'm not"). It just doesn't seem like God's way. Some might view this as those idiot doctors playing God, and pulling people back from death when they should rightfully be sitting in heaven. Well, put it this way, I've had no complaints so far from my patients... In terms of death itself. Yes, I agree, it's something we are all generally afraid of. But people who know they are dying seem strangely calm and accepting. Why? Do they know something we don't? I remember being talked to by some door-step religious people (I won't mention the religion...), who tried to persuade me that people should rightfully live forever. After laughing for some time, and medically debunking that idea, I also mentioned to them that there would be a bit of an overcrowding problem if no-one died. Personally, having been involved in death for my entire working life, I know that when it's my time, it's my time, and I'll accept it. I'll be a bit upset and annoyed, but there you go! So, we've got to this stage, and I haven't actually said what I believe. OK then, here goes... I believe that when you die, you are no longer a concsious entity. You don't function in the same way at all. There's no looking down on friends and family, no chats with long-dead relatives (but then how do I explain psychic mediums?)... I think the soul floats a
round - as I said, as an unconcsious thing. Maybe echoes from this soul can be picked up by tuned-in people (mediums), or maybe that's just one big hoax - the jury is out on that one. I personally think that we all live on after death. Not in the traditional, religion-based sense, but in the things we leave behind on the physical world, the things we've done, the people we've known... And that links in nicely with the Heaven and Hell idea as well. If you're well-respected and loved, or you've done many good deeds, people will remember that. Hey, maybe you'll even get a shopping centre named after you, or a statue. But if you've been nasty, bad, rude... people will remember that side of you. So my message to all is: Don't fear death. Make the most of life, and make sure when you die, there are enough people who care, enough things you have done, enough individuals you have "touched", even in a small way, that you will be fondly remembered when you have gone. That, to me, is heaven enough.
This morning I woke up in a foul mood, shouted at my wife, who was still asleep at the time, and wasn't pleased to be woken up in such a way, stamped downstairs like a teenager, swore, hit a wall, kicked a door, stamped back upstairs, threw some clean clothes from the ironing basket onto the floor (don't ask...), stamped downstairs again, and had a fag, hands shaking. Last night, I spent all night on my computer, thereby ignoring my family completely. The night before, I did much the same. Don't get me wrong - I love my wife and my daughter more than anything (I refer you to one of my other ops "Favourite Thing", if you don't believe me!), but at the moment, I find I can "escape" better by shutting myself away. So what's going on? What is making me feel this way? We've all felt stressed from time to time. Anyone who claims to be entirely stress-free is lying to themselves. It's part of life. And I've always believed I cope well with stress. In fact, people who know me comment on it. Major life crises? No problem. They rely on me to be the voice of reason. Even when I was a doctor in Accident and Emergency, things didn't phase me. Heart Attack? OK. Drug overdose? Yeah. Epilepsy? Alrighty then. But I guess you can only take so much... If you look around on the web, you'll find lists of stress factors, and the degree of stress each factor induces. Some of the obvious ones are there (family deaths, divorce), but it still makes interesting reading. And for the last year or two, I've been scoring pretty highly. But recently, my coping mechanism seems to be breaking down a bit. I'm a lot more snappy. I've stopped shaving regularly (partly to make myself look a bit older, granted, but also through laziness!) I prefer to be on my own. I've started listening to my old heavy metal CDs again. And I'm guessing there's only so much my wife
can take. A while ago (again, covered in a previous op), I went through a bout of depression. I recovered fully, but I can still remember the counsellor saying "I'm not sure how much help I can be to you, because you refuse to open up to me." And I guess that's true. My wife's commented on it too. Everyone knows a problem shared is a problem halved, but I generally bottle things up, and refuse to accept them as a problem. Stubborn, false strength if you like. But it's not deliberate - I genuinely feel I'm OK, it's not affecting me, I can cope. A lot has happened in the past couple of years. Married for the second time, new baby, house move, job change, financial pressures (leading to our car almost being repossessed last month), then finding out I'd failed my assessment year in my job, and would have to repeat a further 6 months (just the icing on the cake). A lot of you (particularly if you know me from previous ops) may well be thinking... "Hang on, he's a doctor. I'm not sure it's safe to have a stressed out doctor." Fair comment. But take it from me, I wouldn't be sitting in this office, seeing patients, if I thought I was unsafe. True, on occasion, I feel like shouting at some patients, and on occasion, I'd rather be anywhere than at work, but generally I'm coping better at work, because it's good to have something to occupy the mind. This is where my op is getting difficult to write. I haven't admitted to not coping, to being stressed out. I was wondering this morning, after my "teenage tantrum", what it feels like to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Does it feel like this? Or am I not even close? Am I just making a huge fuss about nothing? I don't feel my life is crumbling around me. I'm certainly not depressed (I've been there, so I know). I get on with things, but have been known to put off important th
ings in favour of just slumping in front of the TV or computer. I'm certainly coping at work. My patients still appreciate me, I'm making the right treatment choices, and I'm still viewed upon as very sympathetic and understanding. But this general turmoil inside is hard to get rid of, and it's in the quiet times that I feel worse. I sometimes wish I could open up to my wife, rather than just explode from time to time. But she's got the same stresses. She sees me as the "coper". If I tell her how messed up I am, where will she get the support she needs? See, it's not easy. And yes, I'm predicting the comments about "not pretending to be strong for someone else.. etc.", but when you're used to being the coper and the fixer, it's difficult to admit you can't do it any more. (A bit like a man asking for directions!) I don't think there's a quick fix. I certainly don't feel I'm in need of counselling or drugs. Sure, a lottery win would help, as would passing this bloody assessment year, but generally I think things will gradually improve. I'd be interested to hear anyone else's point of views though. What does it feel like to head into a nervous breakdown? Or am I just making a fuss over nothing? And before you all start reporting me to the General Medical Council, remember, I AM coping at work. My patients are getting the same degree of care and diligence that they always have - maybe not with quite as much enthusiasm, but they wouldn't notice that! Anyway, thankyou for letting me share that. Although it was (in places) extremely difficult to write, it has sort of helped to get it out in the open. And I know how many other people feel the same way. So maybe it will help others to know that they're not alone.
Medical students have a reputation for being heavy drinkers. Within my first week at Medical School, in 1992, I discovered why... Many students drink. Actually, why limit it to students... many people drink. A lot. I can remember getting absolutely hammered on a regular occasion at the student bar, which was conveniently 2 floors above the lecture theatres. After 2 weeks, I drank so much "Green Monster Punch" (God only knows what was in it, but it was served from a huge bucket...) that I ended up throwing up all over the bar floor, almost gaining the year's first ban. Rag week (a rite of passage with the feeble excuse of raising money for charity) was a veritable orgy of drunken behaviour - one of my colleagues was arrested in central London for climbing up the outside of a block of flats. Another was admitted to hospital (fortunately not ours!) having set fire to his pubic hair by spraying lighter fluid on his private parts... As to what I got up to... anyway, moving swiftly on. On the last weekend of Rag Week, having drunk heavily all week, I managed a personal "best" - 90(ish) units in 2 nights. I didn't get out of bed for days, and was lucky to avoid having my stomach pumped (something which many of my colleagues unfortunately had to endure). I also remember the hospital controversy when 2 semi-comatose students were dragged down to A&E (a short walk along the corridor), only to be told by the recently qualified doctors on call to "Sod off back upstairs - there's drinking to be done". Many students continued their heavy drinking throughout med school (I'm still not sure what the link is between field sports like rugby and hockey with drinking...), but most of my closest friends cut back once we hit the wards. However, we still exceeded the "safe limit" on a regular basis. Then, I qualified (not sure how, bearing in mind how many lectures were missed due to hangovers!
). And then, the reality of drinking hit me. And now, I'll slip in just a little apology. I feel like an imposter here - I haven't suffered from alcohol addiction. Neither have my loved ones. But I have seen lots of people who have, so bear with me, please! My first job as a doctor was with a gastroenterology medicine firm. They deal with bowels... and livers... and pancreas. We had 3 dedicated "acute alcohol beds", for people with acute pancreatitis and liver failure. People came in, and suffered, and died. On a regular basis. I don't know how many of you have seen people in end-stage liver failure. But for those of you who haven't, let me give a brief overview. The skin is yellow. Not a little bit yellowish. Bright yellow. Imagine Bart Simpson on TV with the contrast turned right up. That yellow. The whites of the eyes are also dark yellow. That's due to the build up of bile salts in the blood. The abdomen is huge - like a balloon. In fact, it's not filled with air, but fluid. Litres and litres of fluid - we call this "ascites". Often, because we can't prevent the buildup of fluid, our only option is to stick a needle in, and drain off the fluid with a syringe. You can only take a bit at a time. What's a bit? About 3-4 litres. Sometimes up to 7 or 8. But don't worry, there's plenty more. The limbs are usually wasted. That's because the muscles start wasting away. Usually, chronic alcoholics are malnourished, so their faces look gaunt, almost skeletal. Oh, and then there's the incontinence, the delerium (imagining spiders crawling on the skin is the classic)... believe me, it's not pleasant. So how does alcohol do that then? First, alcohol causes an accumulation of fat in the liver cells (so called "Fatty Liver"). Because this impairs the function of the liver cells, blood tests would be abnormal, but
this is reversible, and if someone stops drinking, it'll return to normal. However, fatty liver can then progress to more permanent scarring of the liver, and cirrhosis, which is irrerversible. By this stage, the liver function is permanently impaired, and, depending on how much of the liver is cirrhosed, people may become symptomatic. Alcohol can also cause an inflammation of the liver "alcoholic hepatitis", which can also lead to liver scarring and cirrhosis. And that's just the liver. Add to that the acute pancreatitis - (severe abdominal pain, with the possibility of coma and death), Korsakoff's Psychosis - (Confusion, Hallucinations, Amnesia) and bleeding oesophageal varices - (sudden rupture of the blood vessels inside the oesophagus - leading to rapid and violent vomiting of large amounts of fresh blood, and the possibility... you guessed it... of death), and you haven't got a very pretty picture at all. Just 2 months ago, one of our patients died from chronic alcohol abuse. She was in her mid-40s. She had 3 children. The youngest was only 8. The oldest spends all her time in the pub now... This isn't taken from a book. This is real life. This is what I've seen with my own eyes. It's happening around us all the time. As for me. I'm now a lightweight - I can only stomach about 2 pints before I feel I've had enough. What about you?...
I'd dabbled with file sharing before, using the now-restricted (ie dead) Napster, and, more recently Kazaa, but when I finally got a cable connection, I hunted for more.... File sharing really comes into its own when you have a fast connection - you're not just restricted to the usual music files - instead, you can download videos, games... you name it. The best solution I have found so far is Direct Connect, a program created by a company called "Neomodus". Direct Connect runs on a Peer to Peer (P2P) protocol, meaning that you download files directly from other users, rather than searching randomly through a central hub. At first, this can seem confusing for the beginner, and the layout of the program interface doesn't help matters. In most file sharing programs, you have a big window with a few tabs above, with which you can flick between your downloads, searches, uploads, and, for the technically-minded, the connection details. Not so with Direct Connect, which utilizes a more traditional "Windows"-style interface. But first things first. How does it work? When you start the program, you have to connect to a file sharing hub. That's the main computer through which all traffic is routed. The "Connections" window lists dozens of these - many with over 500 users. Some have file sharing limitations - you can only join if you share, for example, 10GB of data. Once you're connected, the "Users" window shows who's connected and how many files in total are being shared. What you do next is pretty much up to you. You can click on individual users to list all the files shared by that person. Or you can run the comprehensive search engine to find files you are particularly interested in. Download speeds are probably slightly lower than programs such as Bearshare, because Bearshare downloads simultaneously from a few computers, whereas in Direct
Connect, you only download from one. If a download is cut off for any reason, it can be easily resumed, or you can opt to find other users sharing the same file, and continue the download from them. So how good is it? Well, Direct Connect is rapidly becoming the largest file sharing program in the world. Currently, according to the official website, 2,835.60TB are being shared between 84981 users. That almost 3 petabytes! What's a petabyte? Well, again, according to the website, a petabyte is the equivalent of: 1,451,002 DivX format movies 325,376,310 MP3 music files. So pretty big then! You are pretty much guaranteed to find what you're looking for. As I said, my main bug-bear is the speed - it's not terrible, but you have to choose who you download from carefully. An ASDL-ASDL connection will fly through, and I've reached about 60-70kB/sec, but many of my downloads are running at around 3-4kB/sec, and that's unrealistically slow for movie downloads, for example. There's also a problem with people cutting off mid-download. Often I leave my computer downloading overnight, only to find I've been disconnected by the other user. But that can happen with many file sharing programs, and I guess is just something we have to live with. So in summary, Direct Connect is great, and is now the only file sharing program I use. You can share any file you want, it's more personal, because you know who you're downloading from, and, with a bit of a learning curve, it's easy to work with. Not one for complete novices (start off with Bearshare!), but if you have a bit of know-how, it's well worth a look. Oh, and the official website (link above) has a great "How to start" section.