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I once had a mouse. A little white animal (called M&M) with a naked tail and a friendly disposition. When I had that mouse, the word 'mouse' referred to nothing but the rodent. These days, if you say you have a mouse you are almost certainly talking about the point-y device you use to make your computer work. These days mice come in various colours (mine is blue) with a tail (OK, a cord) or without (wireless), with wheels or a red light. My modern mouse is a wireless jobby with a red light (instead of an easily clogged wheel). It is petite, battery operated (oooh errr missus) and...effective.
I have had laptops for work for the past several years. Sadly, not every company I have worked for has seen fit to give me a mouse to use with it, wireless or otherwise. Since I cannot bear using a laptop track pad or nipple, I purchased myself a Logitech M305 cordless mouse. I actually bought this mouse (which I am using this very minute) a couple of years ago, so have given it a good old test. And I am quite happy with it.
As I recall, I paid around £15 for it (it's available on ebay now for around a tenner, Amazon want a whopping £20 for it). This is, perhaps a bit pricy for a fairly basic pointing device but it is, nevertheless, a good tool.
This mouse is meant to be portable in that it is slightly smaller than a typical corded PC mouse. It fits my hand well (I do, however, have tiny hands). It is light (200g, apparently). It came in the ubiquitous blister pack containing a mouse, a dongle and a quick start guide. The quick start guide is graphical and fairly light on information - having said that, there isn't much to setting the little squeaker up. You stick one AA battery in the mouse itself, stick the tiny dongle in a USB port, turn the mouse over to flick the on/off switch to 'on', wait a minute or so whilst your computer recognises your new hardware and away you go off to pointing heaven. The dongle is tiny and so small enough that I leave it full time in my computer. When I have had extended periods of not using the mouse (perhaps because I've changed jobs and so no longer have a laptop), I've taken the battery out and stored the dongle in the battery compartment - it really is that small.
This is a fairly basic mouse. It has the standard two buttons and scrolling wheel. Apparently, if you download a bit of software, you get the added functionality of side to side scrolling; I've never tried to do this, or even to test if it downloads automatically as I have little occasion to use this functionality. Otherwise, it works as you'd expect a mouse to - the scroll wheel scrolls up and down, the buttons push and behave as expected. In common with many scroll wheel mice, you can press down the scroll wheel to scroll in an alternative fashion (even without downloading any software). I rarely do this, but it does indeed work. There is a small light on the mouse that will glow when you need to replace the battery. This is useful, though you can usually tell when you need to do this without the light as the mouse becomes less responsive as the battery dies. Usefully, there is an on/off switch at the bottom of the mouse (and the mouse will eventually switch itself to standby if you forget to turn it off) - I switch the mouse off when not in use and so get loads of time (as in months, maybe even a year or more) from a good quality alkaline battery.
The connection to the dongle is good and stable. I have occasionally had to move the dongle to a different USB port - I don't know whether that was a problem with the port or the dongle. I've not had to do that for a very long time. Like most optical mice (mouses?) it does prefer being on a non-reflective surface - even a highly polished dining table can confuse it. Therefore, you may find it helpful to use a mouse mat if you are not using it on a 'standard' desk. I have used it on a book or magazine in bed so it does work on a variety of unstable surfaces.
The mouse is sturdy. I've dropped it a number of times and it lives in a little bag-o-cables in my backpack and seems to have suffered no ill effects. I have noticed no decline in quality, smoothness or responsiveness in the time I have owned and used it. It's a little scuffed and no longer looks new but does its job and does it well.
My mouse may not (thankfully) squeak, but as a point-y, roll-y, button-y thing, it performs admirably. As long as you don't need any funky special features, this mouse comes recommended. Even if it's not as cute as M&M was.
The last thing you want the afternoon before a silly-o-clock flight is to discover your self-catering studio apartment you booked through lastminute.com is not, in fact, booked. Sometimes, however, good things come from adversity and you find (after numerous phone calls and some serious pain, but that's another story) that you've been upgraded to a two bedroom apartment in the same residence. This is what happened to us and thus we found ourselves in said two bedroom apartment at the do-it-yourself yet charming and friendly Pierre & Vacances Haguna in Biarritz, southern France, for seven nights.
Biarritz is an Atlantic coastal town almost as far south in France as you can get. It's a charming village with (expensive) shops, beaches, restaurants - everything the sun-seeking tourist could want. And gosh, there are a lot of sun-seeking tourists, many of whom are French. Many people stay all or part of the summer - longer than the average weekend break. Because of this, there are a plethora of apartments specifically for the longer-stay holiday maker. Pierre & Vacances Haguna is one of these. You can stay for a few days or a few weeks - they have different rates and rules (and check in/check out times) depending on how long you are staying (under a week or more than a week).
Eating, Drinking, Cooking & Cleaning
All the apartments come with various amenities. In the kitchenette there was a coffee maker, toaster and dishwasher and tons of pots, pans, plates, glasses, knives, a cork screw, a wine carafe - pretty much all the utensils you need to cook, eat and drink with. There was no conventional oven, but a four ring modern electric hob and a combination microwave and grill. In addition, there is a dishwasher (hurrah), fridge and a good deal of cupboard space. You will also find in a cupboard a hoover, broom, clothes airer and dustpan and brush. You can borrow a hair dryer and ironing board for free from reception.
These are self-catering apartments. This is important. It's obvious that this means there is no food included in the room rate. But it's also worth noting that towels are not included, most toiletries aren't included, cleaning isn't included - in fact, it is like staying in a flat, not a hotel. This can save money, though it is worth noting that the extras can pile up - we paid Euro6 per person (I think) to hire bath towels and Euro5 for a cleaning kit for the kitchen (sponge, ditsy bottle of washing up liquid, five dishwasher tablets, cloths, surface cleaner). You can also pay extra to have your bed made on arrival (we didn't - we made it up ourselves), to have someone come and clean during your stay, for breakfast and so forth.
A Good Night's Sleep?
Because of the aforementioned mess up, we had an apartment far bigger than the two of us strictly needed. It would sleep six. There were two bedrooms, one with a double bed and tiny balcony and one with twin beds. The living room also has two sofas, one of which opens out into a double bed. Needless to say, we chose the room with the double bed and balcony. There is ample closet space in both bedrooms with a reasonable number of hangers, though a family of six might find the number of hangers a bit paltry. The bed was very large (queen or king, I'd guess) and very comfortable. There were two pillows and two decorative cushions on the bed, but more in the cupboard. In truth, I didn't find the square pillows all that comfortable. They were too hard for me and oddly shaped. My partner however liked the pillows. Horses for courses. White sheets were provided (though as noted, you have to make the bed yourself, and strip it again at the end of your stay). These included a bottom sheet, two pillow cases and a duvet cover (which oddly had no buttons or snaps, so the duvet tended to slip out during our stay).
Live (and let live)
The living area is large. There is a flat screen TV offering many channels, though only two English language channels, both news (BBC and CNBC). There were two large sofas and one tiny coffee table and lots of lighting. There was also a dining area which would comfortably seat six. The bathroom was perfectly adequate with a bath and a shower within the bath. The shower had good pressure and constant hot water - both things very important to me, especially on a beach holiday when you're showering frequently. The hired towels were ok - a bit thin and small but they did the job. There was a tiny bar of soap (honestly, what are the point of those) and a tiny jar of shower gel. The quantity may have been sufficient for your first day, but you'd be advised to bring your own toiletries.
The flat was very clean upon arrival. The floors are wood and there are a few pictures of surf boards dotted around the flat. The curtains were typical just-about-tolerable hotel curtains but they were effective at blocking out light. The windows also had net (glass) curtains. These are useful as our room overlooked the road. If you want to specify a room overlooking the obviously recently re-landscaped garden you pay a premium. As this was a beach holiday, we did use the hoover and broom a couple of times as sand is ever-present.
Space for All
The Residence is in the town, about seven minutes' walk from the beach (well, up to half an hour depending on which beach you fancy - the nearest is about seven minutes'). It is on a fairly busy road (though not frantic) and can be approached from one of two roads. One will have you enter in the basement (where laundry facilities can be found) and the other through the garden into reception.
The receptionists are unfailingly friendly. As my partner speaks fluent French, I did not get the opportunity to determine how much (if any) English they speak. They are helpful and courteous. Reception is open until 7.pm most night. If you wish to gain entrance at other times you are issued with a key code. There is but one lift to serve three residential floors plus the basement. At quiet times, it was reasonably quick but it was quirky. Waiting for the lift, you could never be sure if your floor would be next.
The landscaped (smallish) garden is pretty, but you can tell it's been fairly recently done. It should look even nicer as it matures. There is a wooden deck with fairly comfy chairs (which are only out when reception is open) along with flower beds, an astroturfed lawn and a slightly, intentionally wilder area. It is a sun trap and quite attractive.
Out and About
Biarritz is small and easily walkable. There are two bakeries nearby, two small supermarkets, two wine shops, a few restaurants and cafes, a hairdresser and various other shops all within an easy walk. The main part of town is slightly further away - perhaps all of 7 - 10 minutes. You won't have any problems getting around. There is a free bus that comes past, but in truth, I couldn't really tell you where it went as I didn't try it. It's walkable, remember? Pierre & Vacances Haguna is a good base to explore Biarritz town, the beaches and, if you have a car, further afield into Basque country.
Facts & Figures
Pierre & Vacances Haguna is considered a three star residence. They have a variety of room types ranging from a two person studio up through the two bedroom six person apartment. It is worth noting that the maximum occupancy is based on those people really liking each other quite a lot. Even our two bedroom apartment would have seemed cramped if we'd had six people in there. It would have seemed especially cramped if the six people weren't three couples (or a mix of affectionate adults and a couple of children) as even the twin (single) beds were right next to each other. However, the room rates (which vary considerably depending on where purchased, length of stay, apartment type and time of year) become very reasonable when split amongst a number of people. As we booked through lastminute.com (including flights) and got the unintended upgrade, what we paid is irrelevant. However, as of today (28 August 2013), the hotel's own site tells me I could get a week in a similar flat for anywhere between Euro1480 per fornight in October and November to Euro1900 in September - I'd imagine this is more expensive in July and August. A two person studio in October and November is around Euro700ish per fortnight if booked directly from their own website.
Thoughts and Feelings
Pierre & Vacances Haguna is a nice place. You won't find yourself in the lap of luxury there but that's not its raison d'etre. These are clean, well equipped, friendly, centrally located and reasonably spacious (at least if you book a bigger flat than you strictly need for the number of people you have) self-catering apartments. You'll have a comfortable bed, a functional living area, more cutlery, pots, pans and knives than you'll use in a week and a convenient base from which to explore Biarritz (or, if you have a car, further afield in Basque country).
The staff are very friendly and helpful and the communal areas are clean and, in parts, pretty. However, beware the potential extra costs of towels, cleaning materials, towels, car parking, laundry facilities and so forth. If you are driving, you can save yourself a few quid by bringing your own towels and cleaning materials. Just be aware that if you can't bring your own bits, you will pay a bit over the odds for them.
All in all, I would happily recommend a stay at Pierre & Vacances Haguna in Biarritz.
I'd like to think that I have become British-ised. I have lived in the UK for 25 years and I lived in Germany for just over a year before that. You'd think, therefore, I'd be used to slightly pokey hotel rooms with small beds and 'interesting' showers. Nevertheless, I still appear to be surprised each time I stay in a small European hotel. My experience in the three star Hotel Belta in the 10th arrondissement in Paris (near St Martin's Canal) was typical for a European independent hotel. Reasonably clean, somewhat comfortable but spectacularly uninspiring.
~~~~~ Disclaimer ~~~~~
Before this comes across as a complaint, note that I did not pay anything for this. We used Avios (air miles) for the flight and the hotel, thus paying the princely sum of £60 (for both of us, not each) for flights from Heathrow to Paris and three nights in the Hotel Belta. I would be much less happy had we paid full rack rate for this hotel - at the time of writing around Euro130 for a double room.
~~~~~ End disclaimer ~~~~~
The hotel is in the 10th arrondissement of Paris within walking distance of Gare de l'est (the East train station - one Metro stop from Gare du Nord). It is in a mixed use road with residences and bars, cafés and shops nearby. The road is neither especially noisy nor especially quiet - it's about what you'd expect in the centre(ish) of a major city. However, I am glad we were on the sixth floor (of six). This cuts down the noise significantly, especially as there is no air-conditioning. Had we needed the windows open at night (we didn't - it was May with a mixed bag of weather) we certainly would have noticed the hustle and bustle from the road and bars. It is also near St Martin's Canal. The canal is unusual; it's slightly above road level and has levered instead of draw bridges - the bridge moves to one side when a boat goes past.
The entrance looks a bit dated and the reception area is fairly small, though clean (although you couldn't say the same for the fish tank - it really could do with a good scrubbing). The front of house staff (the one man who seemed to be the sole receptionist - he may be the proprietor) was very friendly. He spoke reasonable English, though rarely, as my companion speaks fluent French (which he clearly appreciated). He was helpful and welcoming and check-in was quick and efficient. I wish, however, I could say the same for the lift...
As we were on the sixth floor, we needed the lift, especially with three days' worth of luggage for two people. We called the lift. And waited. And waited. And waited a bit more. Eventually it came and lordy, was it dinky. According to the plaque within, it would fit four people, but it would be a rather tight and cosy squeeze. The lift is slow so patience is required. Fortunately, we had that.
The rooms open with a key card. The room was...pokey. Inside was a double bed - oh wait, I lie. It was actually two single beds duct taped together by the legs (I'm not making that up). There was a small desk (on which, much to my shock, sat an ashtray), an open hanging space with four or five hangars and a small flat screen TV above that. Next to the bottom of the bed is a full length mirror, and next to that the amazingly tiny bathroom with a sink, toilet and shower cubical. There were no tea or coffee making facilities - indeed, no extras, except free yet quirky wi-fi, of any sort (not even a Gideon's Bible).
The television picked up CNN, a lot of French channels (quelle surprise) and a smattering of German channels. Never mind - we weren't there to watch TV. The bathroom was, as noted small, and the facilities just about adequate. There were two of the tiny little soaps (what possible use to man or beast or those?!) and two minuscule sachets of shower gel. There was no shampoo or conditioner; fortunately, I'd brought my own. The towels were small, white and thin (except one on our last day - for some reason we seem to have acquired a larger, fluffier towel. Most welcome.). The shower was...interesting. It would more accurately be described as a large, high tap. The water just fell out; there was no spray nozzle. It did get me adequately wet but wasn't terribly exhilarating. Fortunately, it was hot and didn't seem to suffer from unexpected temperature changes.
Despite the Heath-Robinson nature of the bed(s), it was reasonably comfortable, though more than one flat, synthetic pillow each would have been a bonus. We were warm enough with a sheet, a blanket each (clearly they don't possess double blankets) and continental duvet/bedspread doing the job (indeed, we didn't use the duvet at all). As the weather was not especially stifling we slept with the windows closed, however they do open fully giving a nice view of the local area.
Some tariffs include breakfast; ours didn't (not shocking given what we paid) so we did not try the continental buffet breakfast on offer in the basement. Reviews I've read on TripAdvisor weren't very complimentary, so we avoided it and ate croissants elsewhere. However, had we chosen to eat there, it would have set us back, I believe, Euro9.00.
Check-out was quick and the receptionist/proprietor booked us a (what turned out to be a slightly scary) airport shuttle and was, as mentioned, really very pleasant and helpful. I didn't see nor speak to any other members of staff at the hotel - besides cleaners I have no idea if there are any (there must be).
For what we paid, the hotel was ... adequate. It gave us a roof over our heads, hot water and a bed (of sorts). However, were I paying full price I'd have been very disappointed indeed. Whilst I know Paris is an expensive city, I would guess that with a bit of careful shopping and pre-booking, one could find a homier, roomier and/or more comfortable hotel at a similar price. However, if you do find yourself there, as long as you know what to expect, you'll have a reasonable stay.
Printers are like buses - at least in my house. No, my printers are not big and red with loads of windows. Instead, they seem to come in bunches. For ages, I'd been working with cheap ink-jet printers, the sort where the cartridges cost more than the printer itself does. Recently, however, I have come into possession, without parting with any money, of two wi-fi, all singing, all dancing printers. One is a Canon, which is a topic for another day, and one is an HP Photosmart Premium, provided by the kind folk at HP and Ciao, in the hope I'll be bowled over and sing its praises over the internet. But is it that good?
== Boxing Clever - Arrival ==
Unsurprisingly, the printer was delivered in a box (which had clearly been opened before). In the box was the printer, the cartridges (five of them), some spare cartridges (only four of those), a couple of handy bags (one for the printer and one for spares) and various wires and gubbins. Set up was easy - I asked my husband to fit the cartridges and plug it in, as I always get myself into a muddle when trying to do anything fiddly like that. As it turns out, fitting the cartridges is a doddle - they just slot in. However, the printer did make a number of interesting whirring noises, and chucked out a few test pages before it was ready to be connected to the wireless. The HP boasts that it has a one-touch wireless set up; my router didn't seem to have the requisite button, so I wi-fied it the old fashioned way - I used the menu and inputted the password key. This was not difficult.
There is a CD ROM with this - this allows you to install the software. I have three computers in the house - a Mac, a work laptop and a home laptop. Set up is similar on both Mac and PC, and is easy, if a little time consuming (perhaps 10 minutes). As well as the printer drivers, the software also includes some HP accessories, a printer monitor and the like. It is at this point you can visit HP's website and set up 'printing on the go' - apparently you can email documents or photos to your printer and it will print them. More on that later.
== Bells and Whistles ==
I'd always thought printers were one trick ponies. Ink jet printers, in my experience, were limited in what they could do. You can print in colour or black and white, and you get through ink like no tomorrow. In short, you used them to...well...print things. If you wanted speed, silence and double sided printing, you needed a laser printer. The HP Photosmart Premium breaks those rules. This baby will print in colour or mono, single or double sided (you don't even need to take the paper out and re-feed it; it does it for you), copy, scan, print directly from the web (sort of). It won't make dinner for you, nor will it wash the dishes. It seems to do much else though.
The screen is big, and it's a touch screen, clearly meant to emulate the iPhone/iPad in navigation. From this screen, you can access a number of aps, of varying usefulness. Actually, I don't find them terribly useful at all. For a start, the screen's sensitivity could do with tweaking - I find it very hard to 'swipe' my way through the aps; I usually either inadvertently select something I don't want (typically Disney, for some reason), or I end up swiping so fast I end up right back at the start. For the sake of thoroughness, however, I did finally manage to print a calendar page using the Quick Forms ap. It's neat that I can, but I really can't see myself making regular use of it.
You can also print directly from a camera's memory card. I have to admit I've not tried this, as I want to put my pictures on the computer anyway - I'm a bit of a Facebook addict, so will often share photos there. Indeed, I rarely print photos anyway these days. Of course, I have printed some to test, especially as HP/Ciao kindly sent me some printer paper. But I shall discuss performance shortly.
The printer allows you, as mentioned earlier, to email documents or pictures directly to the printer. I tried this on my Blackberry, with no joy. Absolutely nothing happened. Sending, however, from my computer using my Gmail account from Entourage did work...sort of. I sent it a picture (from a computer not 20 feet from the printer, but these things need to be tested). It defaults to printing from the photo tray. This tray accepts only small photo paper (typically 6 x 4). I have been supplied with a grand total of three sheets of photo paper that size (though I do have quite a lot of A4 photo paper). When you are printing photos normally, you can override that setting; however, if you can do this from email, I've no idea how.
The printer also doubles as a scanner. You can either use the HP Scan utility installed on your computer, or you can (to a point) control the scan directly from the printer. Handily, the big screen makes scanning easy, as you can see a preview straight from the screen. Therefore, you don't have to go back and forth to the computer to see what you're scanning. You have the choice of scanning to various formats, including images and pdfs. Annoyingly, however, when scanning a multi-page document directly from the interface on the printer (as I recently needed to do when scanning my signed commission plan document to the US), it does create (in this case) seven different pdfs. I was in a hurry on this occasion, and the work computer I wanted it to save to was downstairs (the printer is upstairs), and so I did not use the HP Scan utility on my computer. The Canon allowed me to scan directly from the printer, but gave me the option later to amalgamate the pages, which is very handy. Still, if you use the HP Scan utility, you have a number of useful options, including saving a multipage document as exactly that.
You can also use the printer as a photocopier. Unusually, you have a fair amount of control over the output from the printer itself. You can choose to copy in black and white or colour, single or double sided, and choose the quality, amongst other things. This makes the HP Photosmart Premium a useful photocopier - for once, it's not just an add on. Furthermore, like with the scanner, you can see a preview on the large screen of what you are copying, and you can choose to copy on photo paper in premium quality. It may be a feature I can't see myself using frequently, but it's rather cool, nonetheless.
== The Proof of the Pudding... ==
All the nifty features in the world are not worth a brass farthing (or a wooden nickel, if you're from that side of the pond) if the device doesn't perform its stated function - as a printer. Print quality is tremendously important, especially for a printer that claims to be 'photosmart' and 'premium' to boot. So does it print well?
Print quality is mostly excellent, dependant on the quality of the original. I have in front of me a photo (of which I am very proud - it's me with Terry Pratchett) that I have printed on photo paper on 6 x 4, A4 portrait (where it only fills part of the page) and A4 Landscape. The photo was taken with a high spec digital camera. In truth, at the largest size, it does not look like a professionally printed photo, but it is crisp, clean, and true to its original colours. It is good enough, in fact, that I may well get it framed (I told you I'm proud of it). The quality of printed photos is, of course, affected by the paper (I was provided with both 'everyday' photo paper and premium; I printed these on premium). I suspect it was also affected by the fact that one of the five cartridges supplied is called 'photo'. I'm not exactly sure what makes the photo ink different from the four other coloured (plus black) supplied, but the pictures are indeed good. I also printed a picture of San Francisco I took on my Blackberry (a 5 megapixel camera). The quality wasn't quite as good there, with a few lines and streaks. I used the cheaper paper there (which I cut down with a pair of scissors badly), and the camera quality wasn't as good, but all these things do serve to reduce the quality of the output.
It annoys me that the photo tray, which sits above the main paper tray seems to be the default for printing photos. The printer drags the whole tray into its inners, and it seems to be quirky. You need to make sure the tray is set exactly right, or the printer will throw up an error. I've not tried to load multiple 6 x 4 sheets in there (largely because I was only supplied with three), but I do wonder if that would be quirky too.
Having said all that, I use a printer mostly for printing documents. In this email and Facebook age, many photos simply get posted or emailed. I have printed a fair few documents on this printer, and the quality there is also very good. As previously mentioned, I love the fact you can print double sided automatically.
Once again, the quality of paper you use will affect the finished product, particularly when printing double sided. HP claim they use some kind of special ink, and it doesn't run or smudge, and it dries quickly. However, with the cheap A4 paper I'm using, I do notice that double sided printing, especially if (like the cover of the evaluators guide Ciao/HP kindly sent me) there is a lot of ink on the page, there is some increase in weight of the paper, and minor issues with readability. These are, however, very minor, and no doubt more due to the quality of the paper than to the quality of the printer. On a side note, I do find it amusing that the evaluators guide helpfully tells me that if I print double sided I can 'save paper by up to 50 percent.' Gee. Thanks for clearing that up.
== Click, Whirr... Full, Empty ==
The printer does like making noise. It beeps on start up, it beeps on shut down, it clicks and whirrs when printing, and does so again on start up and shut down. Indeed, it sometimes randomly clicks, beeps, whirrs. I have not found a rhyme nor reason for these brief, unexplained signs of life. Once it gets started its fast - printing, particularly documents is quick. However, it does take a few moments from cold to get started, so your first page is apt to take a bit longer than you expected.
Printer ink is ruinously and shamefully expensive. HP insist its refills are affordable. HP genuine cartridges will set you back from between £7 - £30, depending on size and colour (you can get either standard or XL cartridges, the XL cartridges have a lot more ink in them, if I am understanding this properly - up to 800 pages, apparently). I don't think I've come near to finishing the ink cartridges that are already installed. I use my printer(s) quite a bit, but I'm hardly a super heavy user, and do not print loads of photos to hand out to friends, family and pets. Having said that, the printer is good enough, and I am happy enough with it that I will fork out for new cartridges when the time comes.
== Matty's Musings...==
The HP Photosmart Premium e-All-in-One is a good printer. The touchscreen is quirky - irritatingly so. I wish there were more options when scanning directly from the printer. I wish the little photo tray also took A4 photo paper. On the upside, the big screen is really very handy. The print quality is excellent, and the cartridges are very easy to install.
HP sell this printer online for £159. My husband spotted it in Tesco for £139.97 (he assures me it was the same model), so it's worth shopping around. If all you are printing is the odd Christmas round-robin letter, you probably don't need anything quite so swish. However, if you are a student, or working from home (as I am), it is a good, all around multi-function printer. It prints well, is easy to set up, and is reasonably quick. It isn't flawless, but it is a good addition to a home office.
I will admit right from the start I am a sceptic. I hold no truck with homeopathy, astrology, chiropractic treatments, crystal therapy, reiki healing and the like. However, when, as a BzzAgent, I got the opportunity to try a Philips GoLITE BLU energy light for the significantly reduced price of £40, I snapped at it.
I purchased the box initially for my husband, who is suffering from depression, some of which may be seasonally related. Blue light boxes are typically used for either SAD (Seasonally Affective Disorder) or to deal with time-shifting. According to Philips own leaflet, it may also be used to mitigate the effects of jetlag (though with a load of preparation beforehand - I'll discuss that later), and to simply combat low winter energy levels. It does, however, warn against using it if you are on antidepressants without speaking to your doctor first. I have to admit, I am uncertain why, and my husband has indeed tried it.
I am currently working from home, in my daughter's rather dark room. As the halogen lamp I stuck in here to combat that darkness has fizzled (it actually fizzled - at least made a fizzle noise) and died, I have put the light box next to me on the desk. It is small and nearly square - I am saved the trouble of measuring it, as the booklet (which appears rather large, but that's only because it's in several different languages) tells me it's 14cm x 14cm x 2.5cm. Around 2/3 of that area is taken up by the blue LED light area. Below that is the LCD display which gives the time, how long your therapy has left (you can set the timer to last from one minute to a full hour), whether you have the alarm on, and what intensity of light you have (25%, 50%, 75% or 100%). The on/off button is on the right hand side, and on the back is a little metal stick - it's magnetic, so it sticks in a little recess when not in use, and then adheres to a little hole shape when it is, making a little stand. The packaging also comes with a number of adapters (as one of the stated uses is for travel) and a carry case. It also includes a large looking leaflet of instructions, though the English section only takes up the first 24 pages of the 103 page total.
The light is, in fact, blue. This may come as no surprise. At full intensity, it is rather bright. You are not meant to look straight into it, nor are you meant to use it as your main source of light. Instead, you position it so it's at your periphery, as apparently, the area of the eye that absorbs blue light best is at the corner of your eyes. This is according to the leaflet, anyway. It is easy to use, and the LCD display is a touch screen, so one barely needs to refer to the instructions to work out how to change the timer, or change the intensity of the light. I did need the instructions, however, to set the alarm. On that note, the alarm is a little disappointing. You can choose to have it chime and turn on the light, or just turn on the light. There is no gradual brightening of the light, as I was hoping. It's either on or off, so when it does come on in a darkened room, it can be a little surprising. You can use the light at any time of the day, except in the late evening. According to the instructions, using late in the evening can disrupt your sleep.
The Philips BLUlite is indeed blue, and it is surely a light. From that aspect, it works, and does exactly what it claims to do. It is easy to use, it's light, and easy to transport. But that's not what you're going to fork out £150 - £200 on. You might buy this because you travel a lot, or because you suffer from SAD or just reduced energy levels in the winter. Does it work for that?
The jury is out. Research has been ambivalent - full spectrum sunlight has been seen to be effective for SAD; the effectiveness of lesser intensity blue light has not been categorically proven. One study even suggests replacing blue light with green or white (http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/2/31.cover-expansion). If you read 10 studies, you'll probably find 10 different results. For example, Sad.org.uk (no prizes for guessing that's the SAD UK Voluntary Organisation) recommends blue or white light for the treatment of SAD.
Part of the problem is that sadness (and indeed tiredness or grumpiness) is subjective. There is no quantitative measurement of sadness - all measurements are self reported, usually either through diaries or questionnaires (or simply questioning). Therefore, it can be difficult to tell if any treatment is working (including drug treatments), as since we are talking about the mind, the placebo effect can be very important, and difficult to identify (this is, of course, true with many treatments, including pain medication, as arguably, many conditions are affected by the mind of the person). This is why the double blind trial is the gold standard of testing - where neither the researcher nor the patient knows whether he is getting the placebo or the proposed 'effective' treatment. Needless to say, this can be harder to achieve with something like a light box - it's either on, or off. The way this can be done, however, is by having (say) the control group with a light of a different frequency).
A group of two (my husband and I) is not perhaps the most scientific way of testing the effectiveness of the Philips goLITE, but it is the one we have. So does it work? My husband is clinically depressed; I am not - I just hate the dark mornings and evenings, and struggle to get up sometimes. Therefore, the light is indicated for my condition, though not necessarily for his. We have, however, both tried it.
I use it (sometimes) in the morning whilst I am reading in bed around half an hour before I get up. I do like it, inasmuch as it helps me to realise I have to wake. It gives me half an hour or so to read and to wake up. I am not certain, though, whether it actually gives me more energy or viv and vim. It is a pleasing light, and does, to a point, mimic blue sky conditions. It should be remembered that it's not meant to be used as a light source. It simply augments the quality of light from other light sources, by including light from the blue end of the spectrum. I do feel that the room has a more 'daylight' quality to it when the light is on, particularly just after sunrise, when I've opened the curtains. Therefore, it does work for me to mimic daylight, to a point. Because it's so subjective, however, I cannot be certain it has affected my energy levels or mood. Perhaps it has, at least in the early morning, as I do 'like' it (which is a good as a subjective measure as any).
My husband is actually clinically depressed (not, in all fairness, helped by the fact he's at risk of redundancy). He is on anti-depressants and sleeping tablets. Therefore, this device is contraindicated for him without the advice of a doctor. Limited studies have been done, and the Cochrane Collaboration conducted a meta-study (analysing the results of a number of previous studies),most looking at light therapy in conjunction with drug therapy, and concluded that although the studies they looked at were of poor quality, there is some evidence that light therapy may have 'modest but promising' benefits for treating non-seasonable depression (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/o/cochrane /clsysrev/articles/CD004050/frame.html). The same studies mentions that using a light box in these circumstances may induce hypomania, which must be considered.
One of the symptoms of depression can be an unwillingness to take steps to combat it. For example, regular exercise seems to be an effective self-help treatment, though many sufferers find it difficult to find the energy or wherewithal to engage in such activities. Whilst using a light box doesn't take the same level of commitment, it does require that it actually is used. My husband has used it intermittently. He gets up very early, and so tends to use it, if he does at all, first thing in the morning. He seems to, like me, 'like' it, though I can't truthfully say that I've noticed a huge improvement in his mood and well-being. However, as mentioned, he probably does not use it regularly nor frequently enough to obtain any measurable benefits.
I will soon be flying to San Francisco. Another indicated use of the light box is to combat jet-lag. However, it's not an easy treatment - it's not simply a case of using the light box upon arrival and letting it work its magic. Instead, according to the instructions, you have to alter your sleep patterns several days before flying. In my case, as I am travelling west across eight time zones, I should use the light for 30-40 minutes in the late evening (and again later in the evening, apparently) each night, starting two or three days before I go. I should also shift my bedtime two - three hours later each night over that time. Once I get there, I should stay awake until bedtime and wear sunglasses to avoid bright evening light for a few days. I am only going for over a week, so I would have to do the bedtime shift again each morning for a few days, waking up earlier and earlier each day. Should I follow all these recommendation, I will have strange sleeping patterns indeed for my time there. This could be tricky, as I am going for work, and will be expected to be compos mentis during normal working hours. Furthermore, it would be difficult to tell whether alleviation of jet-lag is caused by the time-shift in sleeping patterns or by the blue light itself, or by a combination of the two. I have not tried this yet, and really don't know if it will be practical. Time will tell (as they say).
As mentioned many words ago, I got this product at a serious discount as part of my participation in the BzzAgent programme. I am not upset about spending £40 on it; I think I have had £40 of benefit from it. Admittedly, I haven't been as scrupulous in using it regularly as I might be, but then, I don't believe I suffer specifically from SAD or from general depression. I just feel slightly glum when the mornings are so dark. I do use the light, and will continue to do so. As a general feeling of lethargy or winter blues is all in the head anyway by its very definition (as opposed to clinical depression, which needs urgent attention by the medical profession - this is not a substitute for a doctor's advice), the light may well be doing me some good.
I'd be less willing to pay the full RRP of £249, however, if you have a look online, you can purchase this for far less - around £150. I also have a number of vouchers for £100 off if you order from the Philips website - this would bring the cost from there to (unsurprisingly) £149 as of the voucher's printing.
If your doctor recommends one, by all means get one. If you have reason to believe you suffer from SAD, it might be worth a go, so long as you are going to use it regularly and as directed. If you suffer from non-seasonal depression, it may help to speak to your doctor, and see if he or she recommends trying it.
It's not a panacea, and will not have you dancing in the streets. It is debatable whether the specific wavelength of blue light it emits is clinically effective, but it is unlikely (with the above caveats) to do you any harm, except to your wallet. If you're interested, shop around, or see if you can try one before buying (tricky, I know). But don't expect a magic wand - it's not that. But then, nor is any treatment. Not ever.
Therefore, I can conditionally recommend the Philips goLITE BLU, on the basis that I have not tried any other light boxes, so cannot compare it to other offerings, only to what it's like without it.
Several sites are referenced within the article. I found most, and followed them up, by reading this article from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_therapy#Light_boxes
http://www.sad.org.uk/ may be helpful to those suffering from SAD. It highly recommends light boxes.
I have also referenced Philips' own leaflet that came with the product.
It's amazing what people will declare their loyalty for. It makes sense to profess loyalty to one's friends and family, to one's country, even to one's job. I've never quite understood rabid loyalty to hair products. Having said that, when buying shampoo or conditioner myself, I do tend to buy much the same products out of habit. But I am not loyal to them. Oh no.
I have very fine, very thin and very soft hair. Therefore, I tend to use products formulated for these hair types; my current favourite being the Aussie Aussome Volume range. I am, however, not committed, and even have my doubts that there is that much difference between products besides colour, smell and consistency - after all, most the ingredients seem to be the same among the various products. Therefore, when my daughter indulges in her habit of buying, and then using half of and leaving the rest, various shampoos and conditions, I cannot usually resist trying them.
The most recent bathroom leave-behinds are two large purple bottles with pump action dispensers of Tigi Catwalk shampoo and conditioner. I, of course, couldn't resist giving them a go - and not just once. You see, she uses half, and then gets bored and buys new. We therefore have a number of half or nearly empty bottles of product in the shower and around the bathroom. I can use pretty much as much as I like - if I don't, they'd sit in there, gradually acquiring a carpet of mould on the bottom, until the apocalypse. So I have used it a fair amount. But in truth, I'll be sticking with my Aussie, until something better comes along. I am getting ahead of myself, however.
I have no idea where darling daughter got it (or how she afforded it - looking at the marvellous thing that is the internet, this stuff ain't cheap - this 750ml bottle I have in front of me can cost around £20 - ouch!). It is a large purple bottle with a pump action dispenser. The problem with the pump, of course, is that it's very difficult to get the last dregs out. I am one of those people who will use every last drop of my shampoo and conditioner - I'll even fill the bottle with water as it nears empty to get those last, precious morsels. Apparently, this stuff is 'safe for color' - I should hope so, as all hair, barring that of those suffering with albinism, has colour (I am guessing they mean colour-treated). As is typical in this country, the back contains instructions (why do we need instructions for shampoo - if you don't know how to use shampoo, you're too stupid to shower unattended) in several different languages, along with the ingredients. As mentioned earlier, the ingredients are similar to every other mass-market shampoo, with the first ingredient being that ever-popular 'aqua'.
The product itself is a pearly purple, reasonably thick. It has a fruity/berry like smell, and is VERY sweet to the nose. It lathers well, though does take a bit of rinsing. Of course, the real question is does it work? Well, yes, in as much as it does get my hair clean. However, I find it leaves it a bit flat (perhaps it is too 'heavy' for my hair), and I'm not a big fan of the cloying, sickly sweet smell. I do, on occasion, colour treat my hair, either professionally with highlights, or more recently, at home with Sun-In. This does not seem to damage or discolour my hair, but then, I've never had a problem with that with any shampoo.
As you may guess, I'm not a huge fan. There's nothing painfully wrong with this stuff, but there's nothing so right to justify the outrageous price tag, or it's 'professional' reputation. It's ok, and nothing more than that. Admittedly, I do tend to the more premium(ish) end of the mass-market, cheap shampoos (I know, that sounds like an oxymoron), going for the aforementioned Aussie or sometimes Pantene, but I suspect many cheaper shampoos would do the same job as the Tigi, and indeed the Aussie. It really is a matter of preference when it comes to smell, texture, and weight. Although many of the ingredients are the same across products for different hair types, I suspect the proportion differs - I do find, for example, that if I use a product for greasy hair, my hair actually seems to become lanker and flatter. Again, if I had to guess, I'd say that shampoo and conditioner formulated for fine hair is lighter with fewer oil-stripping ingredients, and fewer weighty conditioners. But that's only a guess.
All in all, I shall use this stuff (and the conditioner that also sits on my shower shelf) from time to time until it's gone - I hate waste. It isn't as light on my hair as the Aussie, but it doesn't completely flatten it. I'm not over-keen on the smell, but I can get around that by using either the shampoo or the conditioner, and not both. I do prefer the shampoo slightly to the conditioner in any case.
If you like the smell, and it doesn't weigh your hair down, and you don't mind the cost, knock yourself out. It will get your hair clean. But there are loads of products out there that will do the same, and for less of a wallet busting price-tag.
Last week, I, and a few others, were treated to an evening of food, booze, bowling and karaoke (strange combination, I admit). And what a fun evening it was.
Having initially walked straight past Porchester Gardens, I duly backtracked, and turned into the aforenamed Gardens, and practically ran straight into it. I negotiated past the bouncer (who ever heard of a bouncer at a bowling alley, I thought. It made more sense when you realise they serve drinks, and so don't want teen bowlers invading the venue), and went downstairs. The place is decked out like an American diner - indeed, Americana is the theme, right down to the attire of the wait staff. It's big - bigger than you'd think. It doesn't have the seemingly thousand of lanes that a 'chain' alley might have; there are around six or eight, I'd guess (I didn't count) in the main room, and then two in the private room we ended up in.
We were lucky; our first drink (a bottle of Sam Adams in my case - a beer I do like, even though I am mostly a real ale drinker), drinks (red wine, white wine, or Coors Light) with dinner, dinner and a couple of cocktails were free. This is just as well, as an evening at All Star Lanes won't be a cheap one. The bottle of Liberty Ale (another nice American beer - slightly hoppy, though still fizzy) I purchased was £4.50 - rather pricey for a 12 oz bottle. There is a good selection of American beers (well, there is a large selection - there are some very good beers, but also some awful ones - avoid the Coors Light, unless you like making love in a canoe).
The main meals seem to hover at around the £10 - £15 mark - again, expensive for what is essentially an eating place attached to a bowling alley (though far nicer than the standard nacho fare of most alleys). Cocktails can reach the dizzy heights of £10; though they are nice, I'd avoid them for that reason.
The food is again, American themed. I had a seared tuna taco to start, which was quite nice (the tuna was excellent), though I'd have preferred it a little more adventurously spiced. The ribs I had to follow were good, but truthfully, don't hold a candle to 24 hour slow cooked ribs I've had in the States. But the sauce was tasty, and the spiced apple that accompanied it was a nice touch. It came also with cole slaw. This was better than many slaws I've had here in the UK. The view of other members of the party of the food was mixed - one lady had what she described as a disappointing macaroni cheese, and the burgers while apparently good, looked a bit overcooked, and those that ordered the burger were never asked how they'd like them cooked.
Following the meal, we were escorted to the private lanes, where little canapé deserts awaited us. I had a bit of brownie. Again, it was tasty, but uninspiring - competent but not hugely special. Cocktails were also on offer (supposedly one per person...I may have had more than one) - I was told what they were called, but I forget. It was seriously nice though - there was mint, raspberries and I think an American whiskey. Do bear in mind, however, they are expensive if you have to pay yourself.
The bowling was fun, even though I am the world's worst adult bowler. The lanes are clean, there is a good selection of balls of various weights and sizes. The electronic and automatic scoreboard made life very easy, as it seems only the most dedicated bowlers can remember what happens at the end of a frame if there is a strike or spare. The private room only has two lanes; this is worth noting if your group is large, as you may struggle to get everyone bowling in a given period of time. I can't complain too much, as our team won (no thanks to me), thus snagging me a £20 voucher for next time. I would point out, though, that £20 won't go terribly far, especially if food and cocktails are on the menu.
The private room also featured a karaoke machine. I declined to participate in that - I'm more of a finger-in-the-ear-folkie, but I can say that other members of the party enjoyed it immensely, and some had real talent. I did not examine the machine in detail, as I didn't 'play,' so cannot really comment on its features.
Should you care to bowl and actually pay for it, a game at peak times (after 6.00pm and weekends) will set you back £8.75 per person (ouch). Off peak, before 6.00pm Monday to Fridays except in December) is a slightly more palatable £6.25. They do have kids' bowling, though I do not know what time they allow children. All prices include shoe hire.
Monday to Thursday they are open from 4.00pm until 11.30pm (so there is a short off peak window there) - they are open most of the day at weekends, and shut at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. All this information can, of course, be found on their website (http://www.allstarlanes.co.uk/bayswater/bowl.aspx). They also have two other branches in London, should Bayswater not be convenient.
I really did have a fun time, despite my abysmal bowling performance. Were I invited, I would certainly revisit, and will be using my voucher. However, given the rather steep prices of food, drink and bowling, I'd hesitate to go 'just for the heck of it'.
For a party where you have a decent sized budget, however, I would certainly recommend this place for a good (albeit expensive) night out.
Mouse brown. Dishwater blonde. Ash blonde. Dirty blonde. Not the nicest descriptions of hair colour, are they? These are all terms that can, and have been (ok, often by me) used to describe my natural hair colour. Neither rich brown nor vibrant blonde, it can easily be described as mouse. For years, on and off (as finances permit), I have had my very fine hair highlighted, thus giving it a little extra blondish lift. However, money is now tight, as, indeed, is time (it can take a couple of hours for a good professional highlighting job). I have tried home hair colouring, but find it impossible to do properly without a friend , a bathtub, a shower, and usually a very wet bathroom.
My options seemed to be limited - let my hair colour revert to its bland natural state; spend an arm and an ovary on a professional highlighting job; make a big mess in the bathroom (and probably with my hair) attempting a home die job or listen to my daughter. My daughter suggested a product called SunIn - Spray-in hair lightener. This stuff has been around forever - I remember it being advertised when I was a child, back when the Dead Sea was still only sick. I'd never really used it though, and I had noticed that my daughter's hair, already very blonde, did indeed appear blonder. She kindly donated (actually, she charged me for it) a mostly empty bottle of Sun in Gentle with Lemon, and I dutifully gave it a go.
Actually, I looked at the bottle, and read the instructions first. The packaging has obviously changed since the picture here was taken - it is far more bland and blue, with no sunkissed blondes on the bottle. It is indeed a spray bottle, holding 150ml of product. When bought new (for about a tenner), it comes further packaged in a box, with a leaflet with various dire warnings (remember, this stuff contains hydrogen peroxide) and a pair of cheap plastic gloves. It tells me that it's heat activated, so it will gradually lighten your hair under a hair dryer or in the sun. The more often you use it, the lighter your hair will go, apparently. It warns you both on the bottle and on the leaflet to wear the gloves; I never have (I'm a rebel).
Ideally, you spray this on 'clean wet hair'. So I use it straight after the shower. Once you've sprayed it on, you can leave it in spots, if you are going for the piebald look (or if you're better at this than I am and have targeted certain areas or strands), or you can brush it through. I take the latter option. Once I've done that, I blow dry my hair. The bottle also helpfully tells me (actually, the label on the bottle informs me - the bottle itself is surprisingly silent on the matter) that once I've done this, I may wash and condition my hair as usual. Good of it.
I use the Gentle formulation. It does not have a strong peroxide smell. If anything, the smell is slightly sweet, and I find it rather pleasant. The liquid is clear, and like water in consistency, so it is easy to spray and to comb through. I find it does not leave my hair tacky or greasy looking - indeed, I find my hair slightly easier to control following an application.
But does it work, and has it damaged my hair? Yes, gradually, and no, not that I can tell. You will not notice dramatic results after one application of this product. For me that is a good thing - people haven't commented hugely that one day I was a dirty blonde, and the next a platinum blonde. And nor am I platinum blonde now. In fact, most people do not realise I colour my hair at all, and several are convinced (even after my natural honesty kicks in) that it is natural. I do not use it every day, and now that my hair is a colour with which I am happy, I tend to just top it up around once a month, or when I feel like it, or when I think of it. My hair is very fine and thin anyway, but I have not noticed it thinning any more than usual since I've started using it.
Needless to say, you still should take precautions. Spraying it in your eyes would be bad, as would getting it on your hands and then rubbing your eyes. I do not believe that the peroxide concentration in the gentle formulation is especially high, but nevertheless, care should be taken. I would imagine over-use would also do your hair and scalp no good whatsoever. Therefore, it is wise to use it sparingly and to test before using it over your whole head, or using it regularly. It's not recommended for previously colour treated hair (though it worked fine on my growing-out highlights, and didn't turn my hair an alarming shade of orange or anything).
On the down side, I have not actually seen this product for sale, either in the US or the UK. This is apparently because in the UK it's only available locally at the Westfields Shopping Centre in Shepherd's Bush, where my daughter picks it up for me. She charges me £10 for it; I've no idea if she's making a profit on it. Apparently, having done 10 seconds worth of research, she is profiting very well indeed (I shall have to have words) - I could buy it on Amazon.co.uk for £5.95. Rotten kid.
As you may gather, I do like this stuff. I find it provides a natural looking hair colour, lightening my hair gradually with no obvious damage. It is (even with my 19 year old daughter's mark up) considerably cheaper than a salon highlighting job. It does require some care, both from a safety perspective and to ensure you don't end up with electric blonde hair or something, or even worse, an irritated scalp and damaged hair. However, so long as sense and care is taken, I do feel I can recommend Sun-In Gentle.
I have eclectic music tastes. I like folk, rock (think Jethro Tull, The Who, and others of that ilk) with a smattering of classical. I loathe hip-hop, any genre named after a dwelling (House, Garage - what's next - shed?!), pop; indeed, most of what is played on mainstream radio stations these days. Therefore, when our team at work received an award, allowing us to pick a gift from a selection, I chose a digital radio, specifically, the Pure One Classic (aka the Pure Digital One). I was attracted by the idea of having a veritable cornucopia of stations to choose from - surely there would be a handful of stations catering to my tastes.
A couple of weeks after ordering, a card was dropped through my door. Oops, I'd missed the postman. A day or two later, the package was delivered, and the radio duly unboxed, unwrapped and plugged in.
I must admit to a wee bit of disappointment initially. The description on the web told me I could hook up standard speakers and my iPod to it. This is indeed true, but you need a line-in connector (it looks like a headphone socket) - my old, sadly poorly portable stereo in the kitchen seems to lack one of these. The speakers connected simply with little wires (you can tell I'm not an AV technician). The same is true with the iPod - you need a headphone to line-in connector. As it happens, I have one of these, but really cannot see myself using it.
But let's go back to the beginning. The radio I have is white, and it is quite compact. The instruction booklet, as typical these days, seems huge, but only because it's printed in six different languages (did you know the Danish for "owner's manual" is "Brugsvejledning"). The booklet does tell me that it measures 210mm wide x 145mm high and 72mm deep. I realise this may not mean that much to those, like me, with spatial difficulties, but trust me, it's quite small and easily portable (if using batteries or a battery pack, neither of which I have experimented with). It sits in front of our toaster and is maybe ¾ the size of that - shorter, shallower and narrower. There are seven buttons on it, and a central dial, which also doubles as a button. In addition, there is a small, backlit lcd display, which typically displays the time, the station you're listening to, and any information the station chooses to share, such as the track playing and its artist. Needless to say, this only works if you're listening to a digital station that can send through such information.
The radio is easy to use. I did refer to the instruction manual. I am a woman, and so often do. It will autotune the stations, saving you the trouble of finding all the jillions of digital stations available. It will also play 'normal' analogue stations; I have not yet done so, as I use the semi-broken Sony stereo also in the kitchen to do that. Storing pre-sets on both digital and analogue is a dawdle - simply find the station you want, press the 'presets' button to open the list of, you guessed it, preset options, choose one, and press and hold the dial until it's stored. It will store 15 digital stations and 15 analogue stations. So far, so simple.
A nifty feature, which I've not yet tried except in the interests of curiosity, is the rewind feature. You can pause, rewind and replay live radio, much as you can on your telly with a Sky+ box or DVR. You can rewind, apparently, up to 10 or 15 minutes depending on how long you've been listening and how good the signal is. I have tried the pause button and rewound a wee bit - it does seem to work. You cannot, however, pre-record shows as you can on your TV. In addition, there are various alarms and timers. The kitchen timer may be a useful item for me; however, I have a dedicated kitchen timer and a microwave with a timer. I can only anticipate using this if I am timing more than two items simultaneously. Since I am not using the radio in my bedroom, I rather doubt I'll use the alarm functions or the sleep function. I do not tend to sleep in my kitchen. This, on the face of it, sounds like most digital radios (or indeed car radios) out there. Once you are familiar with the buttons and the options, the digital world is your oyster.
However, if you are like me, you will settle on a set of options and stations, and tend to stick to them. Whilst I can change what the display...well...displays, I don't tend to. I have the backlight set to always on when the radio is on (you can have it always on, always off, or on for seven seconds after you do something to the radio), I allow the station to choose which information to display, and tend to listen to Planet Rock and very little else (and when I say 'very little', I mean 'nothing').
My main quibble with this radio is the sound. The reception is good, but the speaker is tiny, singular and frankly, tinny. Although the radio will broadcast in stereo, this requires stereo speakers, which I have not yet managed to hook up. It is for this reason I cannot envisage plugging my iPod into it. I have an excellent iPod dock hooked up to my rather nifty (if elderly) stereo in the living room. I'd rather turn the sound up and listen to my music from there. The neighbours may not be so impressed, but it doesn't happen often, and I like to think I'm expanding their musical experience.
Another issue I have is that it is only portable if you are prepared to invest a fair amount of money in either six C batteries or in the not-supplied ChargePAK C6L, which, as you might imagine, is a rechargeable battery pack. I would be happier were the ChargePAK supplied with the device; this would make it a much better buy.
I suppose I shouldn't complain; after all, I got this baby for free. Still, I could have chosen an in-car digital radio adapter. I would have done, were I the main user of the car, but my inherent selfishness got in the way (it was MY award, after all). Amazon will sell you one of these bad boys for around £40, other stockists may vary - Pure's own site wants £44.95 - but do bear in mind that if you want to portablise it, the battery or battery pack will set you back an additional £35 ish. Ouch.
I shouldn't complain; I did get this radio for free. However, if I were shopping for a digital radio, I would be inclined to ensure I listened to it in the shop, through both its own speakers and through stereo speakers. Furthermore, I'd do more research as to how it can be connected to proper speakers, and make sure I had the ability and the materials to do so, especially if you are going to be using it in a room that may not have large speakers, such as a kitchen. One should also check that the area in which the radio is going to be used has digital reception. Living on the outskirts of London, I don't really have that problem, but results may vary.
I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this radio because of the tinny sound. Should I ever hook it up to real speakers, I may feel differently, but it does seem to me that one needs to spend a fair amount of additional money to make it either portable or a decent sound system.
For years, I thought the US didn't have a pub culture. I thought that there were restaurants, which were expensive and trendy, and bars, which were seedy and dirty. This may have been true at one time, but it is clearly no longer true. The Cherry Street Tavern, on the corner of 22nd Street and Cherry Street, near the Mütter Museum, in Philadelphia proves that this is not the case.
Philadelphia is unusual in that there are true residential areas within the city centre. The area around the pub consists of little terraced houses, one of which has a gas lamp burning, apparently at all hours of day and night. There is even a petite, yet clean and fun-looking children's playground opposite the pub. What this means for the Cherry Street Tavern is that it is a true locals pub - something you can struggle to find in a city centre.
We found ourselves there following a tour of Philadelphia's City Hall (well worth doing). We then planned to walk to the Mütter Museum (a fun, if macabre Victorian medical museum). First, however, we wanted some lunch. One Google search later, we head off to the corner of Cherry Street and 22nd, for a pint and a sandwich.
From the outside, the Cherry Street Tavern does indeed look like a locals pub, and may not be the first place you'd think of entering as a tourist. The pub is right on the corner, so turns the corner. The obvious door in the corner is not the door you need; you need to go down Cherry Street and find the entrance there.
Once in, you'll see a long-ish bar, with backed bar stools sitting there. The pub is quite dark, as there are very few windows. There are two old-fashioned cathode ray tube televisions in the corners, both showing sport. There is a dip, or trough between the stools and the bar. Wiki tells me this was once a urinal; I have my doubts. In any case, there are also a number of tables scattered about the bar. I saw no-one sitting at them. There is also a back room, brightly lit (compared to the bar) with a flat screen television, also showing sport. Mercifully, all the televisions were muted. There is a jukebox, which is quite cool. It's connected to the internet, so can play pretty much any song available. Having told Gina (the bar person - more on that in a minute) that my daughter's boyfriend plays with Marina and the Diamonds, she immediately put some of Marina's music on. I am a kid at heart; I found that nifty. There are sports' posters on the walls, both national, local and high school. It's slightly eclectic, clean and whilst not 'posh' in any way, it was very convivial.
There was a good selection of beer - around six or seven on tap, and maybe double that in bottles. Again, typically, there are both craft, micro-brewery brewed beers and the blander American offers. We started with a couple of pints of the craft brewed (I had Flying Fish, I forget what my husband had) and a hoagie each. The hoagies (kind of like a hero - think a better, more home-made, less cardboard-y version of Subway) were freshly made and tasty. We watched an older man make them in front of us - even cutting the tomato to order. Two pints each and a large hoagie each cost us around $35.00. The beer was fresh and cold (though not too cold), and, by Philadelphia standards, cheap at $4.50 a 16 fl oz pint. The ladies room was clean, a single person type, and unremarkable.
So far, so good. What turned the Cherry Street Tavern from a temporary diversion on the way to a museum to a whole afternoon out (forcing us to miss the museum!) was the incredibly warm welcome we received. Needless to say, our accents (and yes, despite my American origins, many Americans think I sound British. Not a single British person thinks the same) created comments. The pub is clearly a local pub, peopled by characters such as Lacy (a Welsh/American Philly's fan), Catfish (complete with fishing waistcoat) and others whose names I didn't catch. Gina, the bar person is a warm, intelligent, fun and friendly person. She introduced us to each of the locals as they came in, and even bought us a round. By the time we left, we felt like we were locals there, and certainly hope to re-visit before we leave the States.
We have visited a number of pubs/restaurants/bars in the US, and have, admittedly, been welcomed in all of them. But we have never felt so at home in any, until now. Highly recommended - tell them Kate from London sent you.
For every interest; for every hobby, there is a museum. There is a lawnmower museum, a penis museum (I kid you not), a museum of bad art, along with the more mainstream art, natural history and science museums. Many museums include interactive displays - buttons to push, levers to turn. Some, however, have remained resolutely Victorian. The displays are in dimly lit rooms, and in cases of mahogany and glass. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia can safely be called both Victorian and quirky, yet is still educational, in a slightly morbid way.
The name of the museum, though pronounced 'mooter' as in the German for mother, has little to do with either German or mothers. Instead, it was created in 1858 by Thomas Dent Mütter, retired Professor of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College (thank you to both the brochure and http://www.collphyphil.org/mutter_hist.htm for this background information). He donated his vast collection of specimens to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. And what a collection it is. You may gather that the Mütter Museum is a Victorian medical museum. It therefore has a whole case of skulls (complete with descriptions of the race, age, nationality and cause of death, where known, of their previous owners), dead babies in jars, skeletons with various deformities - everything you might expect from a Victorian freak show of the dead. But the fascination goes beyond that.
The museum is within walking distance from Suburban Station (one of three main rail stations in Philadelphia - unusually, all trains seem to go through all three stations), at 19 South 22nd Street. It is not a large museum, and it shares its premises with the College of Physicians, so only takes up a small portion of the rather stately building. Upon entering the rather grand foyer, you pay your money ($14 a person), you must check any bags (including rucksacks), and you are told photography is strictly prohibited inside the museum (though you can photograph the foyer). Heading towards the back, past the grand staircase, you'll see a little entrance - that's where you need to go.
The museum itself is split into two levels, though the upper level is little more than a large balcony. You enter the top level, where you will find the aforementioned skulls. You'll also see a display of bones and wax models demonstrating the scourge that was syphilis (that's seriously gross), and further wax models showing various skin diseases. Up here too is the (somewhat) famous 'soap woman' - a body of a woman who died in the 19th century. Her body, due to a unique combination of circumstances turned into a substance closely resembling soap. This substance is apparently called adopocere. You will also learn of the dangers of tight corseting - there is a skeleton of a woman who virtually lost her ribcage due to overtight lacing of her corsets.
Moving downstairs, the first two things you'll probably notice are the plaster casts of the conjoined twins that gave the condition the name Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. There is also a large case containing three complete skeletons - one of a normal man, one of a 'dwarf' woman, and one of a 'giant' man. The cases are arranged both along the walls and in the centre of the room, so whilst the museum isn't huge, you could spend a happy, if gruesome couple of hours in there, especially if you investigate the drawers (which you may open) of stuff that has been removed from people's stomachs, digestive tracts and tracheas (and pretty much anywhere else you can get buttons, pins and the like stuck). It is also down here you'll find the foetuses in jars (most of which are terribly abnormal with hideous malformations). If that's a bit too morbid for you, you can marvel at the intestine of the chap who died essentially of constipation. It is, as you can imagine, very large and distended.
I've given you a rough overview of what you might find, and the website has a virtual tour with some excellent descriptions of many of the exhibits, with far more detail than I have, or even could, give here. I have been to the museum twice now, once many years ago, and again this year. It is a fascinating place. The museum is laid out, refreshingly, in a Victorian fashion. The curators have wisely avoided turning it into a modern day freak show, leaving it, admittedly, as a Victorian freak show. However, it is worth noting that that is not why the museum was created. It was a learning tool in the days when medical students did not routinely dissect human bodies. These were, apparently, at that time in the US, rather hard to come by. Students, and even many physicians, didn't often come across a sufficient number of examples of disease pathologies to necessarily recognise all the symptoms of a complaint such as TB or syphilis each time a patient presented. Therefore, such establishments were invaluable to the increasingly sophisticated science of medicine. This peek in to this history is perhaps the best reason to visit the Mütter Museum. Not only can you goggle at the specimens, but you will leave with a greater understanding of the history of medicine and the diseases we rarely see now but were a part of Victorian life.
The museum isn't perfect. It is quite compact but they cram so much into many of the displays that the signage is often quite basic and poor. They try to make up for this with an audio option; however, this is available through your mobile phone. You are given a number to call, which would, I imagine, talk you through what you are looking at. As I was visiting from the UK with a UK mobile phone, I declined to spend a small fortune on this. Some signs are there, but some are located either very high up or low down, or are blocked by the frames of the cases (remember, these are Victorian cases so don't have the single expanse of glass you see nowadays) that they are nearly illegible.
The museum is expensive for its size. I do realise, though, that such a museum must take a fair amount of maintenance, and you do hope that your money is going to a good cause, attached to the Philadelphia College of Physicians.
The Mütter Museum is not for the squeamish, and I probably wouldn't take very young children there. If you have an interest in science, medicine and indeed the past, though, you will find it an entertaining and educational couple of hours. It's not a place I'd visit every time I went to Philadelphia, but I'd certainly recommend it as a quirky diversion, with more education value than simply running up the Rocky steps (especially if you don't bother to visit the art museum once you'd achieved the top).
When I was a kid, and we got a sore throat, we'd ask for the 'green stuff.' This green stuff was Chloraseptic, a throat anaesthetic. Fast forward too many years to count, and I'd thought such stuff didn't exist in Britain. I, as it turned out, was wrong. I just didn't know what to call it.
It turns out there are a few products that claim to numb a sore throat. Always frugal, when I had a sore throat a couple of weeks ago, I visited Boots and purchased Boots own brand throat spray. And lo - it's green, and it's stuff. But does it work?
The bottle is considerably smaller than the Chloraseptic I remember. It's only 20ml, and will cost you around £4.39 for this tiny quantity. It's about three inches tall, and an inch and a half wide, and has a lid covering a spray mechanism that baffled me for a bit. There is a white spray button under the green lid, with a long, thin nozzle that appears to point in completely the wrong direction. It turns out you need to rotate the nozzle to point up, press the 'button' and spray three times towards the back of your throat. I am ashamed to say I had to read the directions. More than once. A blonde moment, I guess. What the nozzle does allow you to do is to aim the spray reasonably accurately towards the back of your throat (or, indeed to wherever you have pain in your mouth - there's nothing to stop you using this on, say, cold sores or mouth ulcers). This is a more effective method of delivery than a more conventional non aerosol spray, as it is more accurate. It allows you to deliver the medication straight to the pain, rather than numbing the whole mouth.
According to the packaging, the active ingredient is Lidocaine Hydrochloride (2%) ww (weight for weight). I am reliably informed by my daughter (studying Biomedical Science at Birmingham University), anything that ends in 'caine' is a local anaesthetic. It's common in dentistry (thank you Wikipedia), and so, not surprisingly, this stuff tastes of the dentist. It has a slightly aniseed flavour, and isn't the nicest thing in the world taste-wise. Having said that, it's not completely vile. Just not something you're likely to drink just for the heck of it.
Of course, you don't buy this for the taste, or the packaging, or the method of delivery. You buy it because you have a sore throat and want relief. Boots Anaesthetic Throat Spray will give you that relief. Not total, mind you, nor forever. As Wiki points out, "the efficacy profile of lidocaine as a local anaesthetic is characterized by a rapid onset of action and intermediate duration of efficacy." What this means is that the effect is immediate, and moderately long lasting. I find that the relief lasts some minutes (call it half an hour) rather than hours. It will, however, give you sufficient pain relief to allow you to take longer lasting, yet slower working pain killers (such as ibuprofen) that you need to swallow. Since the act of swallowing can be horrendously painful during such sore throat times, this stuff will numb the throat, meaning that swallowing the tablets doesn't feel like gargling razor blades.
This is a medication. It is a fairly safe one (as it is, essentially, topical), but like all medications has warnings and contraindications. It is not recommended for children under 12 (though I certainly used Chloraseptic before I was 12, but times change, and so do product warnings). The main side effect is a numb mouth or tongue (what a shocker). This means you should take care when drinking hot drinks or eating hot food after using the medicine. You should also avoid it if you are allergic to any of the ingredients (duh). According to the product leaflet, you'll know if you have an allergic reaction if you suffer difficulty in breathing, swelling of the face, neck, tongue or throat. Yes, I'd say that is likely to indicate a problem. The dosage is every three hours as needed, but no more than six times in a 24 hour period. Having said that, I think you'd need to be practically freelining this stuff to overdose (that's not a recommendation to do so, of course!). Still, as it does contain 20% ethanol (aka alcohol), it is not a good idea to use too much of this, especially if you're using Hot Toddies for medicinal purposes.
This 'green stuff' does, to coin a cliché, what it says on the bottle. It will numb your throat, and it will give you enough relief to find longer lasting medication (such as tablets). It doesn't last forever, and it is expensive for what it is. It tastes kind of gross, and you may suffer from numbness in places you don't necessarily want denuded of feeling. For moderate to severe sore throat, I'd recommend this. For just a dry throat following too much alcohol (for example), I'd give it a miss.
It's remarkable. The more devices we acquire to keep us in touch with the world around us, the less we actually communicate with each other. How many times have you seen two people sitting in a pub, both industriously typing on their phones, PDAs or laptops, and utterly ignoring the person sitting right opposite them? Partly for this reason, I'd avoided joining the Crackberry - oops - I mean Blackberry generation. My trusty Nokia was (and still is, for personal use) sufficient - I could make and receive calls, and send and receive texts, and even take the odd picture. What more did I need?
This all changed six months ago, when I changed jobs. Within two days of joining, I was given a box, in which nestled a sleek Blackberry 9000, two charging cables (one for the mains outlet, the other for a usb connection), a set of headphones, a carry case which is, apparently, magnetic, and four booklets of instructions (two of which, admittedly, were in Spanish). I was well on my way to a serious Crack(berry) addiction.
As this is a work phone, most of the set up was done for me. The device was set up to 'push' my work emails to my phone, and allow me to look up company names, numbers and email addresses from the global list. The phone number was already printed on my business cards, so it was pretty much ready to go. Yes, I did customise it to an extent, but it must be remembered that as this is a work phone, it's not got tons of memory, so I haven't loaded it up with music (though it will play music), nor games (though it has a handful) and I have not downloaded oodles of funky apps. I use it primarily, though not exclusively, for work, and so will be reviewing it from that perspective.
The Mirror Crack'd - look and feel
Not surprisingly, this is a hefty little device. It has a full QWERTY keypad (by full, I mean it has all the letters, not that it's full sized - you'd need awfully tiny fingers to touch type on this bad boy) taking up the bottom third(ish) of the 11.4 cm height, and an easy to view, well lit, high resolution, colour screen filling most of the rest of the top. Between the keypad and the screen you'll find the answer, hang up, menu button, back up button and little scroll nipple thing (the little ball that allows you to navigate the screen - this isn't a touch screen, and the ball does stick from time to time). It's black with a chrome 'frame', and has a leatherette back with the inevitable camera lens. There are a number of buttons and holes on the sides, including one to activate the camera, one to lock the phone, a volume control, and a couple that are frankly a mystery to me.
It is heavier than a 'normal' mobile, though not uncomfortably so. The official specifications tell me it weighs 136gms, this hardly matters though - it's heavier than a stupid phone, but not brick like. Oddly, I find it fits more comfortably on my ear, when using it as a phone, than does a normal phone. It covers more of my ear, and sits better.
It is a bit large to fit comfortably in a pocket. Height, width, depth and weight are considerably larger than my little Nokia. I have carried it (in its supplied case) in my jeans pocket. This works only if there is nothing else in the pocket, and the jeans aren't too tight. In a suit jacket pocket it sits like a stodgy pudding consumed after a big meal. It drags and you can certainly feel the size and weight. It fits better in many coat pockets, but no matter which pocket you put it in, you will be aware of its presence. If, like me, you carry two phones, one for personal and one for work, you will soon feel weighed down my technology.
Hangin' on the Telephone - Call Me!
Call quality is good. My Blackberry is on Vodaphone, and the sound is usually crisp and clear, and I don't suffer many dropouts. Whilst it is comfortable on the ear, do be aware that if you are wearing make-up, you will find it smeared on the screen after your call. Mine is currently set up to vibrate a couple of times when it is in its case (putting the phone in the case automatically locks the phone, requiring a password to unlock to make calls, but not to receive them - that's what the magnet is for), and then ring. I rarely make it in time to answer the call before voicemail kicks in, particularly if I have to frantically search to discover into which pocket I have stored it. I have fiddled with the settings to change this. The ringtone setting is easy to find. There is a little loudspeaker type symbol at the top, you simply move the little ball until it's highlighted, and you can adjust the settings for various ring profiles from there. However, I've not found a setting that has a good balance between a couple of vibrations and full blown ringing. I am still working on it.
It did take me a couple of gos to work out how to make a call, particularly one to someone not in my address book. It does turn out that this is fairly simple. There are red numbers printed above some of the letters, arranged in a typical phone fashion. Simply press those to make your call. However, it wasn't immediately obvious to me, as you need to enter a menu item to do almost everything else.
Texting is not as straightforward as I'd like - simply navigate to the appropriate menu item (mine is on the 'home' page), and hit the menu key, and then go to 'compose SMS', unless you are replying to a previous text. There may well be a simpler way to do this; if so, I've not yet found it.
Stalked by Work - email and stuff
Clearly, my firm didn't give me a Blackberry just to use as a mobile phone. Oh no. They want to make sure I can deal with obstreperous clients at all times of day and night. Using email (it's set up to give me access to the Exchange server at work) is considerably simpler than texting. A little red light (the bane of my existence) flashes insistently when an email has arrived, and a little yellow envelope symbol appears at the top of the screen. I simply highlight the envelope symbol (bigger, and not yellow) at the bottom of the screen, and lo, I am sent straight to my inbox, and sometimes to the new message that has arrived. Reading and replying are easy - the screen is clear, and the menu button gives me many of the same options I have on my computer - forward, reply to all, reply and the like. I can download attachments, but I don't - who wants to read a spreadsheet on a dinky little screen? Some graphics are rendered in email, some not so much. But given that it's more designed to quickly read emails on the go, I don't usually find this a huge problem.
When composing an email, I can use the lookup feature to find colleague's email addresses, or to find any addresses I've put into my personal address book (on Outlook at work). The Blackberry automatically picks up any addresses I add to my Outlook address book. Because it's a QWERTY keyboard, typing a message is easy - no predictive text required here. The keyboard is small, and a bit fiddly, even for my tiny hands. Symbols can be accessed either through the little 'sym' key near the space bar, or more commonly used symbols are on the keyboard, accessed by hitting the 'alt' key first. Numbers are also accessed via the alt key (i.e. hit 'alt' followed by W, and that gives you a 1). Irritatingly, I have not yet found a reliable way to delete large chunks of text at one time, nor to copy and paste large chunks. I have sometimes managed to highlight a chunk, but for me, it is very hit and miss.
My work calendar is also accessed by the Blackberry, and the device will alert me when an appointment is due. I don't add appointments via the Blackberry; I tend to do this at work, and the Blackberry syncs with my calendar. I get a wee tingle and a flashing light when an alert is there, I can then dismiss or snooze it just as I would from my computer. I can also view my calendar day by day, scrolling across to change days. This all works much as you'd expect - it's not as clear on the tiny screen as it would be on my computer, but I wouldn't expect it to be.
All Work & No Play Makes Matty a Dull Girl
No-one expected to give me a toy and not allow me to play with it! There is a pretty much fully functional internet browser on this, which even allows me to view web pages much as I would on a computer (albeit much smaller). These days, many sites will automatically default to a PDA view in any case when browsing to them - the BBC's site is an example of that. Browsing is easy. The 'go to' page, which is accessed via the ever useful menu key allows you to either type in an address directly, or use the other input box causing a Google search to happen. It's not the quickest internet browser in the works. This is to be expected, given that it is still essentially going through the mobile phone network. It is, however, adequate.
I find the browser especially useful for finding pubs, in conjunction with Google Maps (a downloadable, incredibly useful app that acts as a silent sat nav system). Pop over to www.beerintheevening.com, bung in your postcode and find yourself a decent pub. Find the postcode on BITE of the pub you want to visit, stick that in Googlemaps, get directions, and Bob is your proverbial uncle.
I have also downloaded the Googlemail app, allowing me to access my personal email as quickly and easily as I can my work email. The screen looks slightly different from the 'real' email screen, but the functionality is much the same, right down to the blinking red light to alert me to a new email.
The camera is...ok. It is easy to use, and includes a zoom of up to 3x, and a flash. It doesn't take the world's greatest pictures, which is not surprising, given it's only a 2 megapixel camera. It is adequate, but you won't be setting the world alight with your masterpieces.
The phone is Bluetooth capable. I do not, however, have a Bluetooth headset, nor have I had occasion to swap pictures or other bits and bobs via Bluetooth. I have found the Bluetooth menu, but not yet used it, so really cannot comment. Do bear in mind, though, that Bluetooth is a real battery sucker, and so it is not wise to have it always on.
There are many features to make the phone 'fun', many of which I just do not use. I don't use Blackberry's own map feature, nor have I downloaded any music or other multimedia. I have played Breakout a few times, but soon tired of that. For the most part, I really do use this for work. Once the novelty value evaporated, I realised that I already had an iPod (RIP - stolen a couple of weeks ago), and access to plenty of computers, most of the time, and that I'd rather read a book than play the games. The only other apps I have downloaded and use regularly are IM clients - Googletalk, Yahoo Chat and MSN Messenger. Even those, I don't keep on all the time. I tend to sign into them if I don't have a book on a long train journey. I don't really need to be in contact all the time. But more on that shortly.
According to Blackberry's own website, http://uk.blackberry.com/devices/blackberrybold/bold_specifications.jsp, this thing should stay alive for 13.5 hours on standby, and 4.5 hours of talk time. Bullocks. I find, even though I have mine turn off automatically at 11.00pm and back on again at 7.00am, I have to give it a wee top up at least once every couple of days. I don't use it that often as a phone, though I do check it and use it for emails quite a lot. Even so, I do find this thing eats power. Furthermore, whilst you can charge it with the usb cable attached to the computer, it doesn't really like it. It absolutely must be charged from the mains from time to time, or else it will die, and appear utterly dead. This happened to me; I thought I'd somehow broken the phone. It just needed some proper, mains power and then it was fine. Fortunately, it didn't lose anything in the memory.
Online, All the Time - the bottom line
Looking at the device itself, it is fairly easy to use. It feels good on the ear when using it as a phone, and isn't too hefty, though slightly inconvenient, when carrying it around. Using email is a dawdle, and it works consistently. The keyboard, though small, is easy to use and has a good, responsive feel to it. The trackball is useful, though it does stick sometimes. There are a number of useful (and not so useful) apps out there for it. Battery life is appalling, but, on the upside, it does recharge from the mains reasonably quickly.
The Blackberry is, without a doubt, a useful device. If I am on my way to a meeting, or running late, or away from my desk, my clients don't have to suffer. I can even catch up with personal email, update my Facebook status, IM friends or colleagues or just generally mess around with the great wide world outside my immediate sphere of influence. I can be in constant contact with people I cannot see.
And there's the rub. With a Blackberry, you ARE in contact all the time. You are expected to respond to emails, or appointments, or even IMs instantly and effectively. You are never offline. Every silver lining has a cloud, and the constant availability truly is a double-edged sword.
If I were asked 'what do I think of the Blackberry as a concept', I'd swing between the poles of convenience of contact, and on the downside, convenience of contact.
Dog owners all over the US clean, preen and travel with their dogs in search of that elusive Best in Show. Prestigious indoor ring shows are the pinnacle of the dog show year, and owners and handlers will travel far and wide to attend these shows, each convinced their extravagantly named pooch will take that coveted title. It's a long, hard slog to get there - many regional shows must be won. Once the dog is at the show, they go through Best of Breed, then Best of Class before finally entering the ring with dogs of all shapes and sizes, competing for that top title.
The annual Mayflower show, held in Philadelphia attracts dogs and their owners from far and wide. Harlan Pepper brings his bloodhound Hubert. He hails from the south, and has a rather worrying interest in nuts. The Flecks bring their prized Norwich Terrier Winky from Florida - every man they meet has apparently, at one point or another, slept with Cookie Fleck. The Yuppie contingent are represented by the Swans, bickering, neurotic and terminally dull, who insist on anthropomorphising their Weimaraner bitch Beatrice. The flamboyantly gay contingent isn't ignored - meet Scot and Stefan, doting over their Shih-Tzu Miss Agnes. Rounding off our eccentric dog-fanciers we have the enormously bosomed and nailed Sherri Ann Cabot, her very elderly (and utterly silent) husband bringing their Standard Poodle Rhapsody in White, handled by Sherri's very close friend Christy.
Each owner is convinced his (or her) dog has it in it to be Best in Show at the most prestigious show in the American dog show year. Each person (and some of the dogs) has issues (including, but not limited to, Gerry Fleck's two left feet - not figuratively, but really). All are keen to explain to the 'documentary' makers of their dog's fitness and qualities, and all want nothing more but to win Mayflower Kennel Club's Best in Show.
The Mayflower Kennel Club doesn't actually exist. The dog show and all its eccentric characters are inventions of the geniuses who brought you This is Spinal Tap, and therefore, as you may have guessed, Best in Show is a 'mockumentary,' made in 2000. And a wonderful one it is, too. The characters are, of course, far larger than life, and the creators could be accused of a degree of exaggeration and stereotyping. But like Spinal Tap, the caricatures are based on life. After all, every hobby attracts its share of obsessive nutters, who will stop at nothing to be the top fan/dog shower/planespotter/writer (etc). And the dog show world is no exception - I should know - I grew up with pure-bred dogs, and have visited many a show, and met some very strange people.
The movie is, to an extent, ad-libbed. Whilst situations were written, the actors - Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy (who wrote Best in Show), Michael McKean (he's come a long way from Laverne and Shirley), Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, to name a few - are allowed free rein, and use it well. They play it utterly straight, leading the unwary to believe they are watching a real documentary. Many of the names and faces you will recognise from Spinal Tap, and the style of film-making isn't far different.
Some of the characters are likable (Christopher Guest's Harlan Pepper for example), some not so much (you really want to strangle Parker Posey's and Michael Hitchcock's Swan couple). You will find yourself sympathising with the Flecks (particularly poor, left-footed Gerry), and becoming deeply suspicious of Christy Cumming's motivations, thanks to the acting of Jane Lynch. Whilst all the characters are exaggerated, one can still see truth there - the obsession, the love for the dogs and for the hobby, the desire to win, the competitiveness.
Not all the characterisations ring exactly true. Because this is a comedic exaggeration, some elements just take things a little too far - as far as I know, for example, nobody really does have two left feet. Although very funny, and quite surprising, it does remind the viewer that we're not watching a real documentary. However, for folk unfamiliar with the dog fancy world, personality traits and actions that seem unrealistic are, in fact, spot on. I've met people who would give nearly anything up for their dogs (or, more accurately, for the ribbons and titles the dogs collect). I've watched Westminster (the real New York Show that the Mayflower show is based on), and heard a commentator very much like Fred Willard's inane, clueless, self-absorbed presenter Buck Laughlin (as an aside, I love Fred Willard - he's one of those faces and voices you see everywhere, but often can't quite place. He was notably recently in Wall-E).
Best in Show is a very, very funny film. There is no exact plot. It is instead a series of interviews and situations, showing the faults, foibles, desires and wants of the characters. The dogs are almost (though not quite) sidelined. The interest comes in seeing how the owners and handlers treat their dogs - from the Swans treating the dog like a spoiled child, through the obvious affection Harlan has for his prized Bloodhound. You do root for your favourite character's dog to win, and hiss at the less likable owners.
The acting is excellent. As I mentioned, there wasn't a 'script' per se, merely a set of situations and circumstances that the actors riff from. They all stay in character superbly - you never get a whiff of wrongness - you never think 'well, he just wouldn't say that.' The mockumentary style works well. Although a few of the notes don't ring quite true, most are believable, and the more exaggerated elements tend to be introduced in such a way, reasonably gradually (there are exceptions) that you swallow those up with the rest.
The actual filmmaking is what you'd expect from a real documentary. It's filmed like a professional documentary - some shakiness, but nothing obtrusive - a lot of straight to camera work. There's nothing overly quirky about the film style, and nor should there be - it needs to be 'straight' in order to be believable as a documentary.
This won't be a film for everyone. Most of the humour is fairly gentle, and quite intelligent. It probably helps if you know something about the dog-show world, though this isn't utterly required - any hobby has people who take it way too seriously, and so any hobbyist should find something to relate to here. Although there is a structure to the story (in that the action is all leading up to the Best in Show ring), there isn't exactly a coherent story, but this makes sense, as this is how it would be in a 'real' documentary.
I have Best in Show on DVD, and there are a few extras. As well as the typical scene selection, you can also listen to a full length audio commentary. I find these distracting, though one of these days, I will listen properly, as the co-writers/actors/director Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy contribute this, and I'm sure it will be entertaining. I just find audio commentaries distracting. There are also deleted scenes. These are definitely worth watching, as they add to what we've already seen in the film, and given the mockumentary nature of the movie, slot in nicely. These include a couple of alternative endings, and add to and enhance the experience.
Although not a perfect film, this is a fine movie. It has the same humour, wit, intelligence and keen observation as This is Spinal Tap. It takes yet another niche interest and parodies (with affection) it to a tee.
Best in Show is a real bargain on Amazon, and can be had for an extremely reasonable £3.97. Alternatively, you could have three Christopher Guest films, including this one, in one package for £7.99, though that set sadly omits This is Spinal Tap.
I was a lucky teenage, skin-wise. I rarely had spots (though struggled to leave the ones I did get alone), and my skin was, if anything, slightly on the dry side. I didn't have oily patches, and had (apart from hereditary dark circles under my eyes) a nice, even, pale skin tone - wrinkle free and pretty healthy looking.
Moving forward a whole bunch of years, I've, unsurprisingly, aged. My good fortune in my youth is my downfall now, as I suffer from quite dry skin. As I utterly neglected it in my glory years, I now find that I need a moisturiser to keep my skin from feeling dry and tight.
I don't tend to go for hype. I ignore the pseudo-scientific ingredient claims. I don't believe that any non-medical cream will magically make my deepening wrinkles disappear. However, a decent moisturiser will make my skin feel smoother, less tight, and help foundation go on more easily. I often use products from the Boots Protect and Perfect Range, however, with a (fairly) recent purchase from Clinique, I received in my bag of goodies (I never buy premium make-up unless there's a freebie on offer) a little jar of Clinique's Moisture Surge gel crème - a pretty heavy-duty moisturiser, if I'm any judge.
I have here in front of me a small, clear glass pot - as might be expected for a fairly premium brand, it is classy looking. It tells me it's fragrance free and allergy tested (in several languages). I can vouch for the lack of odour - it is unperfumed (though not completely odour free, though the smell is subtle and not perfumed, and not unpleasant). I don't, to my knowledge, have any particular allergies, but I have never experienced any irritation with this stuff. Neither the pot nor the website mention if the products are tested on animals, so I'm forced to assume that they either are, or that Clinique reserves the right to do so.
Unlike many moisturisers I have used (not, I should point out, that I'm some kind of expert or moisturiser addict), the product itself is more of a gel than a cream. In the pot, it is a sort of peachy-pink colour, looking more clearish white on application. It has a thinner consistency than more traditional day or night creams. It's not watery, but it is a thin gel.
It feels slightly greasy on the fingertips. You don't need much - the first time I used it, I put quite the dollop on my fingers, and so spent ages trying to rub it into first my face, and then finding I still had stuff on my hands, my arms and elbows, so be warned! My skin does certainly feel smoother and less tight having applied the product, but I can still feel places where it hasn't quite absorbed into my skin.
There is no sunscreen in this product. Because of that, and because of the slightly greasy feel to it, I'd be inclined to use this on problem areas (such as around my eyes) or at night, rather than as my every-day moisturiser. Given that it can take a bit of time to absorb into my skin, I'd also be reluctant to apply foundation over the top of it - I'd worry about shine. Having said that, today, I am wearing no make up, and I've just applied some Moisture Surge, and I can certainly feel the surge of moisture (though that could be the apocalyptic rain we are having today).
Clinique don't advertise this product as a stand-alone moisturiser. Instead, they suggest using it after going through their three step skin-care regime (my wallet is blanching even at the thought) throughout the day to give your skin an instant (you guessed it) surge of moisture, even over make up. I wouldn't be inclined to use it that way, especially given that at Clinique's recommended prices, this stuff will set you back an eye-watering £30 for 50ml. My pot is only 30ml, but it was a freebie.
I will finish the pot, slowly, and when I think of it, or feel I need that...well...surge. I won't, however, be replacing it. It's expensive, and as I don't believe any cosmetic product will make me look 10 years younger, I cannot justify the cost.
Not entirely recommended, given the price tag.