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As a long-time Pratchett fan I bought this on release day in hardback.
As far as presentation goes, the book is available in multiple formats, including ebook and paperback.
There are a couple of hardback editions available, including a special edition with a gold dustcover and art cards, which wraps around the cover showne above to make it look as though Vimes is peering out of a port hole. In the physical books the text is clearly printed and legible, and although initial formatting problems were reported with the ebook version, these should now have been resolved.
So on to what people care about: the plot. This is a 'Watch' book - part of the Discworld subseries that focuses on the City watch and its Commander Vimes, who has gone up in the world since he married Lady Sybil Ramkin.
I'm not going into the details because I don't want to spoil it, but much to Vimes' displeasure, he and Lady Sybil leave the ciy behind to tour the Ramkin country estates and introduce their son to the joys of the countryside. He encounteres some interesting characters even before the plot truly begins, for example, there's a wonderful parody of Victoriania and Jane Austin early on, and then he arrives at the manor. Then he discovers the goblins, the dark secrets of the community and a crime to investigate (even if technically it may not be illegal). And then, finally, he discovers the threads that lead back to the city he just left...
There are a lot of plot threads in this book - it covers class differences, parodies classical literature, and has a fair bit of the standard discworld jokes readers will know well. At the same time this is a lot darker than many of the other books - without giving away spoilers, it features murder, slavery, and genocide. Because of all the plot threads, in some parts Snuff feels a little disjointed, but it is still better than the majority of books on the market.
Snuff is not a book I would suggest for readers new to the Discworld, because in many ways it feels like a perfect closing book, the resolution to Vimes' story, simply because there is not much more to say about him after this. There are also cameos from a lot of old favourites in the Discworld series. I would say however that readers who start with "Guards, Guards" the first of the Watch series and follow it through, will not be disappointed by this latest addition to the series.
After a checkup the dentist suggested I switched to an enamel protection toothpaste. Since my husband loves Colgate, I simply started using the same type as him.
In terms of packaging it is available in various sizes, from travel tubes to much larger family tubes. It is usually better value for money to buy the largest tube you are sure you can use - we tended to get the 175ml.
On the shelf it is boxed in a cardboard box displaying the red and white Colgate logo, and information about the toothpaste. This sleeve is not sealed, probably only exists for stacking and can be disposed of once you get home. Inside, the contents are in a plastic tube with either a screw-top or a flip-top lid depending on which size you purchased. I actually prefer the flip tops as I find them easier to use, and they make less mess. The side of the tube has information about the toothpaste, its ingredients list, and usage suggestions, printed on it.
The toothpaste has a smooth texture, and comes out easily when squeezed, although the same smooth texture can be a nuisance when you are trying to get the last drops out. Because the tube is purely plastic, not foil, if you roll it from the bottom, it does not stay rolled up once you release it. I have had one tube splitwhen I squeezed it: it got the toothpaste out, just not the way I wanted or where I wanted!
Overall, I would have to say the packaging is functional, distinctive and well-designed.
Sadly what cost it stars was the toothpaste itself. The paste is smooth, not gritty, and comes out easily onto the brush. It took me a little time to get used to the taste - mild mint compared to my old toothpaste - and it leaves a pleasant fragrance that cures bad breath. During use the paste creates a moderate amount of foam, not enough to make you look like you are shaving, but enough to get the job done. Overall it is a fairly standard mainstream family toothpaste.
Where it fell down for me were, sadly, the areas I needed most. It was not very good at removing stains, and at the next checkup the enamel erosion had not slowed, to the point where tooth sensitivity was becoming far worse. This may be the way I was using it, but a more specialised toothpaste used the same way has since had a better result.
Overall I would give this three stars. It is a pretty average product, it will keep your teeth clean, resolve bad breath, and may well provide a degree of protection. As a mid-range toothpaste, if you just want a bit of extra protection, it is good value for money. However, if you are looking for a toothpaste to resolve major tooth sensitivity issues or enamel loss, there are better on the market.
I took this out back when ISAs were launched, and had one for many years. Sadly, like many customers, I am now looking at moving my account. However this does not mean that the account is bad - in act thee are people I would recommend it to.
The IF mini-cash ISA was upgraded to a more standard cash-only ISA when the ISA rules changed. Now, As a cash-only ISA, the IF ISA is effectively a tax-free savings account which can accept a certain amount of new money each year, again making it very simple to use. Interest is added monthly, allowing you to see how much it increases by, so it gives you a real feeling of progress. The limit of what you can invest changes each year, but all the interest is tax-free which makes it a good long-term savings vehicle.
It is managed purely online, as IF has no branches, and it is remarkably simple. The log in is fast and secure, and customers can manage all their accounts, called 'jars', from a single easy-to-use dashboard. It is probably the simplest and easiest of the online savings systems I have seen (particularly after the Halifax's rather awful update, which is odd given the link between the two companies). You can also set up regular transfers from your external current account making it easy to manage.
Adding, moving and withdrawing money to a linked external account is easy. I did have some problems when I tried paying money in directly over the counter without using the interface: the account details caused a problem at the bank. It is an ideal way for anyone to get started with online banking.
Customer service, contactable by phone, are friendly, efficient, and polite. When I had to call them for a repeated problem (caused by a fault at my end) they provided everything I needed to resolve it with no hassle at all. I was extremely impressed.
Why am I leaving? Purely because of the interest rates. When the account launched these were good, but it has now been slashed to the extent that many other ISAs will pay better returns - and shares or investments can far outperform it. Given the discrepenacy is now about 3%, I feel my funds would be better elsewhere.
In summary, this is a good product for an inexperienced investor, someone unfamiliar with online banking, or someone trying to build a nest egg, but it is limited by only accepting cash and offers a comparatively low return compared to other forms of investment. Since you can only invest in one ISA a year, think carefully before you make your choice.
Mturk is a site set up by Amazon where users can perform basic tasks in return for a small payment. It is named after the "Mechanical Turk" chessplaying machine from the eighteenth century.
Mturk pays users to perform "hits", which range basic routine tasks e.g. assessing search results to checking database records and entering data, to more complicated things like surveys and writing articles.
Task providers sign up, detail the task they are offering and the pay per "hit". A hit will be an isolated piece of work within the task: writing one article, checking a few results etc. Users can view the hits on the website, and choose which ones they want to perform. Once a hit is accepted, you have a time limit to complete it, after which if the hit is not finished it will be returned to the pool for another user to accept.
Pay rates usually vary between $0.01 and $5 for each hit, with more complex tasks being worth more. The vasy majority are at the lower end. You can get bonuses or qualifications that allow you to access better paying tasks. Once you have completed a hit and submitted it, the task provider checks it and if your work is up to standard the funds are usually added to your mturk balance within a few days.
The big downside for me is the payment system, which is why this gets 3 stars. Users with a US address and bank account can get it transfered to that account and users in India can get cheques in rupees.
In the UK they only pay by adding directly to Amazon.com gift balance, which is non-transferable to other accounts, not valid on Amazon.co.uk, and cannot be used to buy other gift certificates. This makes it difficult to buy electronic items like Kindle books or MP3s (not available to customers outside the US), or region-affected products like DVDs, and means that whatever you do buy P&P will take a huge chunk of your earnings. There may also be customs duties to pay. As a UK-based user I find the payment system immediately halves (or worse) the effective value of my earnings due to the huge overheads.
As a single income source this would be low: you aren't going to make a full-time living at this, particularly not in the UK where you are hampered by the payment system. On the other hand, a few minutes a day can slowly add up to a nice gift card balance for christmas - useful if you have relatives or friends in the US who you need to send gifts.
I love the tasks, the range offered, and the variation. If you want to practice skills like data entry and transcription with an eye to a career, it is a useful place to start. It is easy to use and very simple, but with a payment system like this it is not something worth doing for the money. If they'd fix the payment system to allow Amazon.co.uk vouchers or even Amazon.com gift certificates that could be transfered or sold on, I'd give this five stars.
Overall I'd say its fun, but not financially rewarding.
The Belkin ClipOn hub is a 4-port USB hub with its own optional power supply, designed to clip over the edge of desks and be easily portable.
Physically it is a nice design. With a matt black plastic cover, it is small, sleek and deceptively light. Straight out of the packet (a standard plastic bloister pack) it looks like an odd shape, with the two large prongs for the clip beneath it, but once it is fitted it makes a lot more sense.
The clip underneath is designed to fit over the edge of standard office desks. It is strong, and takes a little bit of strength to slide into place, but once it is there it's pretty secure. You may have trouble if your desk has a lip or metal bar under the edge, but otherwise it has worked with everthing from a dining table to standard PC desks. The two prongs are curved underneath to give you room to tuck wires in and keep them tidy under the desk edge, but as someone who changes devices frequently I don't tend to use this feature.
Once it is clipped in place, the top forms a raised V-shape with USB ports on each side, two facing towards the user, two away.These are nicely spaced so collared or oddly shaped USB devices can fit without problems, and the angle makes it very easy to remove or insert devices without fumbling. On the flat side there is a small round socket for the external power supply, if you choose to use it.
It connects to the computer by a USB to mini-USB cable. The mini USB hub is on the side designed to face the user, making it easy to attach and detach. As a USB 2.0 hub, it offers reasonable speeds (480Mbps) and I have used it to transfer and duplicate information simultaneously between multiple external devices on the hub with no notable slowdown.
One of the best features of this hub is the optional external power supply. This is an adaptor designed to connect the hub directly to a mains socket. Used without it, the hub works like a standard USB hub and draws power from the USB connection to the computer. With it attached, the hub can provide additional power for USB devices, reducing strain on your computer's power supply. It is extremely useful for devices like external harddrives and DVD burners which sometimes draw more power than a computer's USB port can provide, and so would otherwise require multiple USB port connections or their own external power supply. This is also extremely useful for laptops, where the battery may otherwise be unable to provide sufficent sustained power for a larger peripheral e.g. external high speed hard drive.
The external power supply also means this device can be used as a charger for USB devices even if it is not connected to a computer. I've used it to recharge wireless console controllers and USB batteries when I didn't want to turn the computer or console on.
No drivers were necessary, it's simply plug and play. I've used it that way with Windows XP and above without problems. Ease of use is very good - the hub can clip almost anywhere, be used with or without the external power supply, is very light, small and easy to carry in a laptop bag, and works plug and play with most computers.
Belkin have now released an upgraded and faster version, which I don't use, which apparently allows the 4 port section to be detached from the base and act as an independant hub. To be honest, I prefer the stability of this version.
This hub, and it's newer version, are available from PC specialist shops, and widely available online. You can find them second hand but since a new hub is under £20 - and now the more recent version has come out, under £15 - you won't really save enough to make it worthwhile.
I've actually never had a problem with this hub, which is a very rare thing for me and computer peripherals, and would recommend it.
This blue plastic ball has proved to be one of our cats' favourite toys. Even though there are two in a pack, it doesn't stop the felines from squabbling over them. It also works on a principle designed for feline minds: when it rolls, food falls out.
This is a hollow, plastic, ball, about the size of a tennis ball. It has eight holes on each half, four large and four small. The holes are adjustable so you can make as easy or hard to break into as you like, and set it to different sizes for different types of food. It can take almost any dried food or treat. The small holes are open/close while the larger ones have more settings. You adjust the hole size by turning the ball, which is in two halves that can move against each other and have several clickable settings. The ball itself is hardwearing and durable. It's even survived being dropped off a bookcase and downstairs by our most determined (read greedy) cat.
To refill the ball there is a twist and lock cap on the bottom, which you remove to fill the ball with dried treats. Once it is mostly full you relock the cap. I prefer half-filling ours, since that way it can make a tempting rattle when it rolls. I do have the problem that I tend to forget to close the holes when I am filling the ball, so a few treats always end up on the floor - for two minutes before the cats get there.
Then you put the ball down and let the cats chase it to get the food out, or just push it slowly along with their nose and hold their mouth open so the food falls in. I don't think one of ours got the idea these were supposed to be about exercise. If the cats prefer to chase them, be warned this is not always a quiet cat toy, especially if they manage to knock the ball down the stairs. One word of warning: these balls are robust but if your cat is a feline of size, smart and food-motivated (e.g. our half-Maine Coon) they may be strong enough to pry the holes wider, clicking the ball onto the next setting to make the food fall out more easily.
As a cat toy these are great, but from an owner's point of view they come with two problems, both underfoot. If the cat chases the ball but doesn't eat the kibble you have a lot of cleaning up to o after it, and second, the ball itself can be a bit of a trip hazard. It is large enough to fall over, stepping on it can dislodge your footing, and you can't ask a cat to put its toy away when they've finished with it. Since it is large and blue it is normally easy to see, except on blue carpet at night...
Still the only opinion that really matters is the cats, and they love it. Even if the same dried food is available on a plate, they tend to empty the ball first, and they can play with these for hours. The best thing is that while most cat toys lose their appeal, these ones have been firm favourites for nearly a year.
The cat food balls are not expensive and can be bought in pairs from most pet stores or online. We got ours at Pets at Home.
I'd give these five stars as a cat entertainment toy with long lasting appeal. I just wish the moggies would clean up after themselves!
Blandy's Duke of Clarence is a madeira, originally classed as a Malmsey madeira until labelling rules changed (it is now renamed and labelled Malmsey-style). It can be obtained easily online or from most supermarkets.
Madeira is a fortified wine, like Port, so its alcohol rating is higher than standard wines. Duke of Clarence is around 19% by volume. What sets Madeira apart from Port is the heat treatment that makes it both long-lasting - it was originally popular because it could endure sea voyages - and gives it a unique flavour, which is definitely noticeable in this drink.
First, the bottle. The bottle (usually 40cl) is a green so dark as to appear brown unless you hold it up to the light, with the blandys logo emblazoned on the front and a square label below stating "Duke of Clarence". The back of the bottle has a label explaining the history of madeira and winemaking on the island. When it first arrives, the top of the bottle is foil-wrapped. Under this there is a paper seal which is over the top of a plastic and cork stopper. The stopper edge is ridged, making it easy to remove and replace by hand, which is useful as one major feature about madeira is its longevity.
Madeira has one very notable property, the ability to be stored for long periods in poor conditions without going off. Duke of Clarence is no exception: one bottle I had sat comfortably in the cupboard in the warm kitchen for over five years, and the flavour hasn't degraded at all.
The most important thing about the drink is the taste. Duke of Clarence is a malmsey-style madeira, one of the sweetest types of madeira. However, sweet for a madeira does not mean sweet in the same way as alcopops or liquers, it just means it lacks the bite and vinegar taste of madeiras like sercial.
The first thing you notice when the top comes off is the scent, which is pleasant and smells mainly of fruit. There is a slight sharp undertone which will be familiar to most madeira drinkers. When poured it is a rich brown colour, although slightly less clear than the madeiras I prefer. Once it is poured the rich aroma disappates quickly in a few minutes, which is a little disappointing.
It has a very rich fruity flavour, but is more acid than many malmseys, and definitely on the rich and sharp side of sweet. If you aren't used to madeira this might not be a good one to start with since it can be an acquired taste. The richness of flavour isn't quite there compared to older madeiras or the ones actually sold as Malmsey instead of Malmsey-style.
One of the uses of Madeira are for cooking. It can be used in madeira sauces, trifles, etc. and to be honest I was a little disappointed in this one. The flavour didn't hold in the recipe as well as others of comparable price and there was a slight tang to it. On the other hand, Duke of Clarence makes an excellent dessert wine, although I found myself changing what I was serving to allow for the sharper taste.
I have mixed opinions of this drink, because it is a good madeira, it has the characteristic taste, great texture, wonderful wrapping, it smells right...and I really don't like it very much. It's purely a personal thing - I like madeira, particularly Malmsey, but I prefer a smoother taste. There are others in the family who actually prefer this.
The problem I really have with this is the price - while Duke of Clarence is available in most supermarkets for under £15, for the same price you can get a ten or fifteen year old Malmsey from other producers (e.g. Henriques & Henriques) which have a stronger flavour.
I would love to give this more than four stars, but given the flavour and the alternatives in the same price range I can't justify it. Overall it's a good drink, not perhaps one for people who are trying their first madeira, but worth trying for anyone who likes the madeira flavour and wants to broaden their options.
Farthing Downs is a small patch of countryside within South London. Preserved by the Corporation of London in the 1800's to ensure that Londoners would always have somewhere green, it is legally protected from development and continues to offer a retreat today. There is no entry charge, or even a manned gate. It is simply free public land to get away from the city for a while.
The Downs covers 235 acres. Undeveloped and fringed with woodland, the first hint that you are leaving the city comes when you walk over the cattle grid at the entrance. Cattle and sheep graze on the Downs, which was originally London common land, and horse riders use the bridleways. Wildlife is also common - foxes, deer, badgers, and a huge variety of bird life can all be seen here, little more than a mile from one of the main routes out of London. Because of the trees and the lay of the land, the sounds of traffic are inaudible once you enter. There are no streetlights so after nightfall it gets very dark and it's best to take a torch.
Farthing Downs is now part of the route of many London walks, including the London Loop. Ramblers, dog walkers and cyclists all enjoy it - however the only rule remains to respect the land: take your litter home with you and don't disturb the wildlife.
The Downs itself rises to a hill at the midpoint, and you enter at the lowest point. Walking (or driving) up the main route it is worth stopping to look behind you however. As the Downs rise above the tree level, the horizon view covers most of London. From the top of the rise, you can see Canary Wharf, the BT Tower and the entire London skyline just by turning. However it is windy and exposed so dress warmly.
There is a tarmac road that runs up through the centre of the Downs to the Visitors Centre, although this has no pavements and pedistrians will need to walk up onto the verge if cars come by. The road is still a popular walking route, and can be done with a pair of stout shoes. Rambling however will need boots - this is a wilderness retreat and a lot of the walks run through forests and bridleways which are unmade and can get muddy.
The Downs is almost completely undeveloped. There is a visitor's centre at the top, but this offers little more than toilets, a few displays and a place to sit. At weekends however there is often a food van of some description available to buy water.
Other features of interest include the Millenium Cairn, which is at the centre and shows distances to famous landmarks from the Downs, the remains of the Surrey Iron Railway, the first public railway in the world, and the Saxon burial mounds. There are also events such as nature watching, and star gazing which take place regularly, managed by the wardens.
Farthing Downs is in South London outside Croydon. Getting there is simple: the nearest train station (Coulsdon South) is five minutes walk, there are two other stations within twenty, and the nearest bus stop is opposite the entrance road. The car routes are simple (just grit your teeth over the cattle grids) and directions and maps can be found easily on Googlemaps or many other online systems. However it is largely unsigned so you may need to ask a local if you get stuck.
While this is a great quiet escape for a couple of hours, it is less suitable for active children who want to play games rather than explore - simply because active games like football will probably disturb wildlife. There is a park nearby where games can be played if you prefer.
However if you are looking for somewhere quiet to hike, a chance to just get away from the city, or somehere to sit and enjoy the country, the Downs are ideal for an hour or two as a getaway.
BIC crystal pens are ball-points, easily available everywhere from supermarkets to post offices to webshops. As cheap, disposable, pens, these are what many people will think of as a standard ballpoint.
Each pen has a transparent plastic body, straight for most of it's length but with the last inch before the nip tapering down. The body has a hexagonal cross section to make it easy to hold, but there are no grips or mouldings (making it ideal for anyone who dislikes soft-grips), just the Bic logo and pen size printed in white halfway down the barrel on one side. The nib is plastic, connected to a translucent internal ink reservoir, which makes it easy to see how much ink is left - as you use it up the ink level moves closer to the nib. The nib is gold coloured plastic.
The pens have a detachable plastic lid, and a plastic seal at the end to stop the ink escaping. Both of these are the same colour as the ink in the pen which is a handy guide, but can cause confusion if the lids get accidentally swapped and you forget to check the pen itself! It's fairly tough and resistant to being dropped or knocked, but the case is brittle and can crack if too much pressure is put on it. I've never had one of these crack in my hand, but treading on them is not advised. Because it is plastic, it is useful to use in cold places where a metal bodied pen can be quite uncomfortable to hold, although the ink flow can get a little erratic in really low temperatures, like taking notes outdoors in last year's snow.
They come in a range of ink colours, including black, blue and red, and are often sold in multi-packs making them popular for writers, students, offices and anywhere or anyone that goes through pens in quantity. They are very cheap if bought in bulk - I picked up my last pack of ten for less than £2. The medium, which I usually buy, has a 1mm nib size to give a fine but clear line on the paper.
They take a few strokes on paper to get started but then tend to provide a steady, non-splogy writing experience. Used in damp conditions the ink can run a bit, but otherwise it is good in nearly every environment I have used it in. Towards the end they can get a little erratic, but at that point you can simply get a new one from the pack. The best part about them is that if I am writing leaning on a wall or at an odd angle, the ink flow remains smooth. You can put these in a pen pot, nib upwards, and still get a good writing experience the moment you pull it out, unlike some biros that take warming, shaking, etc. Also it writes well on recycled paper without spreading or clogging, which is useful.
In general the manufacturing quality is high. I have been using these for years and although I have encountered an ocassional duff pen, one that splodges or leaves gaps in writing, these have been few and far between. The one major drawback with these pens that I have found is that every so often one will leak, usually from the nib. The ink inside is thick, viscous, and sticky and will stain most things it comes into contact with. While it comes off hands with hot water, soap and a nailbrush, it is a lot harder to get off clothes and bags, usually requiring a hot wash and stain remover. There's nothing to do with the pen afterwards apart from throw it away. The effects of dealing with this is one reason why the pen has four stars from me.
Cheap, disposable, easy to buy and easy to use, this is a staple of the office for me, and I've got quite a few at home as well. They are easily the best cheap writing tool I've found on the market.
I first encountered an earlier version of this phone at work when I damaged a hand and had to use a brace, and my experience was good enough that I ended up finding this one for a neighbour with arthritis and hearing problems.
This is an extremely sturdy phone - you don't need to worry if you drop or knock it. The phone sits on a moulded base, supported by rubber feet that hold it firmly in place, so it won't move while dialling. This is raised and slightly angled to present the buttons towards you. It is a fairly big phone, but the controls and features are clearly laid out and enlarged to make them easier to use.
Physically the number buttons are large, and clear enough that even with visual problems they should be useable by most. Even with visual issues a user should be able to use this to call for help in an emergency. With a hand locked in a brace I could happily press these buttons, while I had trouble with standard ones. The smaller buttons may require a bit of a squint, but they are for advanced features like divert, which are less necessary. This may not be suitable for blind users - it has a double bump on the 5 to locate it, and raised one, two, and three dots on the "most important number" buttons, but there are no braille markings on the buttons.
Speaking of advanced features the phone has a broad range of extras. It has standard call transfer, call waiting and divert facilities, but these aren't ones we use often so I can't comment. A thirteen phone-number memory is also useful, but as a telephone luddite I didn't find this very easy to configure, even though the three most important numbers get their own dedicated buttons!
The extremely adjustable speaker volume and hands-free settings are very useful, even if you are just using it to let several people in the house to join in the same conversation. The ringer volume can also be controlled, making it easier to tell when it rings. With three ring tones you have some ability to choose one you like (or can hear better). I can't personally comment, but I have heard it works very well with a hearing loop.
There are some nice touches - the large print manual and the default settings being at maximum makes it very easy for users to get to grips with it. Also, since it's corded there is no risk of losing the handset round the house! The display lights are bright and clearly visible, so there's no confusion about what it is trying to tell you.
It is worth shopping around if you want to buy this phone. It is available for under £20 online, but can cost up to twice that in stores. Second hand and refurbished models are available more cheaply, so it is within the price range of most.
I found this very useful, and while it may be a bit large for a home phone, it is ideal for people with visual or audio problems who find a standard phone difficult to use. It also provides an excellent range of features for the price, and at less than £20, is a bit of a bargain.
(Please discount Update Possibilities and Processing below as irrelevant: To update this phone you'd be buying a new one. I've rated Quality at five due to the phone's durability)
After defeating Comrade Black and Inkt, de Blob might think he had earned a rest. Unfortunately there is a new and terrifing threat removing colour from the Prysmia: the brain-washing Blancs. Once again, Blob needs to find paint and get colouring to liberate the oppressed Graydians before their lives become pale shadows of what they used to be.
This game is a strange mix of platform and action. In the main game Blob moves, runs, charges and jumps around the world, climbing buildings to find new areas that need colour restored, attacking enemies by jumping on them, and freeing citizens imprisoned in their buildings (when the colours and features went, so did doors and windows). The second type of gameplay, entered once you get inside enemy strongholds, is a classic 2D platformer with enemies, obstacles, and objectives.
Blob has the ability to store and transfer colour by gaining colour-points. He picks up colour from pools or individual colour droids, and can colour other objects and the envrionment around him by running into them. As colour-points also double as Blob's health it's important to keep them high! Water and Ink pools will drain your colour points, and ink will keep draining them until you wash it off, so there are some tricky areas to climb around. If that isn't enough, certain enemies will also shoot it at you! Each area also holds inspriation points, which you can collect and use to upgrade Blob's skills to allow him to store more paint, improve armour, and so on.
One of the really nice things about this game is watching the drab featureless world come to life as you move around. The aim of each level is to restore as much as possible - all the trees, population, billboards, etc. - and you are scored by how much of each objective you completed.
There is also a strong plot running through this game. The Blancs, a disturbing brainwashing cult who drain the colour out of everything they touch, are actually good enemies even later on when they show their true colours (pun intended). Each level is about freeing part of the world from their grasp and weakening their influence and resources, and there are comic-style cut scenes between levels and occassionally during levels that let you know more of the story.
For a game based on graphics and colours, this is heavily stylised and as a result still looks fresh and interesting. The physics engine is remarkable, handling surfaces from ice to tarmac, textures, clinging to walls and bringing a world to life as you play. The sound is cartoony to match the graphical style. Voices are gibberish, and information provided by subtitles, but this works for the game.
The controls are nunchuck and Wii-mote, and I found them very simple to get used to. I am a little surprised there was no classic controller option, since the controls are simple enough to support it.
de Blob 2 also has a two player option, allowing you to play Blob's new assistant, who you can also upgrade. Unfortunately I found her irritating, so I didn't play this very much.
Compared to the first game, this one is less gridlike, and the areas you need to colour are less clearing delinated e.g. in the first game areas of cliff coloured completely at a touch, while here the colour fades towards the edges of where you actually made contact. The controls are improved, perhaps because it was ported to other consoles, and the graphics seem sharper.
This is a good, enjoyable game suitable for nearly all players. It is simple enough to get into easily, and complex enough to keep you challenged trying to find the last tree/graydian or building on a level for hours.
Tesco extra strength paper plates are disposable paper plates ideal for picnics and a variety of other uses. Flat plates with a raised rim around the edge (about 1cm high), they are made from tough card with a waterproof coating.
The packaging is minimal - just sealed plastic wrap with a label stuck on it. You get 25 in a pack and prices range from £2 to £3 depending on the time of year. While this is considerably more expensive than standard paper plates, these are a lot more hardwearing.
These plates are not just useful for picnics. Given their strength, they have a range of other uses, including arts and crafts. They have what I would call limited waterproofing: while they can happily take wet food, I would not put liquid on them for long periods (e.g. growing cress on them makes a mess). In the short term e.g. mixing paints for play they are actually OK.
For arts and crafts use, the waterproofing does mean that colouring or drawing on these is best done with crayon not paint or watercolour.
We actually started using these when one of the cats had to have medicine in his food which could not be mixed with our own, so we couldn't put his plates through the wash. Rather than try to preserve sterile conditions in the kitchen it was simpler to use disposable plates, and I stumbled on these. They are solid enough that if they are down for the day with catfood on them, the food had not soaked through by the end of the day and the plate could be easily disposed of.
When we used these on a picnic, the rim makes them easy to hold (and it's simple to put clingfilm over them if you need to to keep flies away) and they are very strong and unlikely to bend unless you really overload them, or absolutely soak them over a long period of time.
In environmental terms, they are compostable and recyclable, which is useful as we have a food and green waste collection. I did phone up to check and Tescos confirmed that they could go in the recycling, so there isn't a landfill concern.
I tend to keep a packet of these around the house as a fallback, simply because they are so useful, and so robust. Highly recommended.
Post-it notes are probably one of the most useful tools for office work I have encountered.
As everyone probably knows, Post-it notes are pieces of paper with a gummed edge. Supplied in a pad or block, you write a note on them, peel the sheet off and attach it to almost any surface. The notes can be peeled off without damaging the surface, but otherwise the glue will hold the note in place for a few weeks (or longer), making them ideal for temporary records. They are available in a range of sizes and colours suitable for almost any purpose.
They are incredibly easy to use, and there are hundreds of uses for post-it notes: as reminders, from shopping lists stuck on the fridge, to task notes at work, attached to a monitor (or that bane of anyone in IT - a password reminder stuck under the keyboard...) They are ideally suited for anywhere you want to leave a note without destroying or damaging the original, or locations where a non-sticky note may not remain e.g. a window.
I find post-it notes are very useful as bookmarks, particularly with library books as they are non-destructive. You can attach and detach them without damaging the book, leave a bit sticking out to find a page or even colour-code them to group your references. If you use a larger note you can also make notes on the post-it and spare your book. There are even post-its now designed specifically for this purpose, but I found the classic shapes work better and have more space to write.
There are only two issues I have encountered with postit notes: First, they aren't particularly reuseable - once stuck and removed the glue starts to go and they don't hold well if reattached. However, there isn't really enough space to write more than a few words on them anyway, so it is usually easier to get a new post-it.
Second, most writing implements work with a standard post-it note, but the surface of the notes can be quite shiny in some versions. If you get post-its with that surface, biros and pencils work, but gel markers and fountain pen ink may not set very well and sometimes smears.
Neither of these are major problems, and don't reduce just how useful Post-it notes are, for notes, recordkeeping, research and more. Overall, Post-it notes are an everyday supply for me, and very very useful.
Lost Kingdoms is a card-based RPG for the Gamecube.
A mysterious fog has shrouded the kingdoms within the land of Anygwyn. Anyone who enters it never returns. When the King leaves with his knights to attempt to defeat the fog, his daughter Katia disobeys his orders to remain within the castle and takes the Runestone from the castle treasury. The Runestone gives its bearer the ability for control and summon monsters using cards. With this weapon she ventures out to find her father, determined to find a way to defeat the fog.
Exploring each area is very similar to most RPGs as you find chests and stumble into random encounters. Unfortunately whenever an encounter takes place you are placed on a battle screen, which represents a a small section of the map you were exploring. However you cannot open chests or pull levers within that area until you have finished the fight and are back on the full map. Rather counter-intuitively however, this is the only time scenary becomes interactive as you can fell trees, and smash boxes and vases to find hidden items, which you cannot do in the exploration mode. As a result, you may find yourself focusing on breaking scenary objects rather than enemies during fights!
Also you can only visit each ares until the quest in it is done - you cannot backtrack to get extra XP for cards, or to get chests you missed once it is complete. This can be extermely frustrating if like me, you are a completist, particularly if a battle finishes before you have managed to break the items you can seen on screen.
Battles are nicely done and fairly simple. Your deck is displayed on the right, your hand of four cards on the left. Each card is mapped to a button and to play a card you press that button (another card is pulled from the deck to refill your hand automatically). The cards include summons, weapons, independent monsters and "helpers" such as healers or boosters. There is a basic set of elements, but it has little effect - a strong fire card may defeat a weak water card despite their elements. Cards can be found in chests, bought at the shop, or upgraded. You can also capture monsters and turn them into cards, but this is very difficult to accomplish correctly.
The main element of the game is the cards, collecting them, creating decks (you can save multiple decks making it easier to choose appropriate cards.) and trying to ensure you do not run out of them. Each time a card is used in combat it is "used up" and cannot be used again. Although there are ways to restore cards to your deck (blue fairies and deck points among them) it is easy to run out of cards if you are not careful.
The subgame, collecting red fairies to give to a scholar in the kingdom in exchange for cards, is fairly amusing but difficult to complete.
Rather uniquely this game seems to be aimed at female gamers, probably in their early teens or younger, though there is a lot to enjoy for any gamers. The puzzles are simple and the game is linear, as you travel from area to area solving quests. The graphics are standard, and in places appealing, and the spirites and monsters move beautifully. The sound effects are atmospheric, but again they are not outstanding. The control system is easy and very simple.
In general the game is simple and suitable for younger players. For older players it is an amusing diversion with a total play length on about 5 hours. Replay value is provided both by the 2 player mode and the desire to collect all the cards and fairies, although the latter goals are not enough to keep an experienced player coming back.
While this is a Gamecube game, it will play on the Wii, so for fans of RPGs on that console it may well be worth a look. The sequel Lost Kingdoms II is also available and offers more sophisticated play, appealing to older or more experienced players.
As an introduction to the Gamecube or console gaming for younger players, particularly girls, this game is excellent. For older players it provides a brief diversion, but is definitely worth a look if you find it second hand. Second hand copies are easily available online or in most gameshops fairly cheaply.
(an update of my CIAO review)
I liked this game when it came out on PS2, so when I saw it was out on PC on budget I picked up a copy to play it again. Having been out for a few years the Bard's Tale is not an expensive purchase - you can pick the PC version up online for a couple of pounds and at that price it is a steal!
The plot is simple: the Bard, our eponymous anti-hero, travels from town to town conning the locals out of their coin, and occassionally trying to get into their beds. So when a beautiful princess asks him to be the next hero to try to rescue her it is rather unexpected (apparently all the better candidates have died). After some intense negotiation over rescue rates and fees, the bard sets off on his new quest - that is, if he can take his eyes off gold and women long enough to remember it...
The Bard's Tale is an excellent mix of RPG, action and black humour, which should appeal to most gamers. It has a well-written script and strong storylines and characters supported by standard gameplay and graphics, with surprisingly good sound. The voice acting in particular is superb, particularly Cary Elwes as our not-so-noble hero, and Tony Jay as the narrator.
Aside from sarcasm, the Bard's main power is summoning creatures to fight or perform tasks for him, although if needed he can fight with a good array of weapons. Unfortunately these creatures can be less than reliable. Witness the trapper, whose job is to throw himself on traps so the Bard does not get damaged - or occassionally to stand back, snigger and let the Bard get hit.
The game uses the Baldur's Gate engine, giving a top down view of the gameplay, and the graphics are reasonable but not outstanding. This is true of both the gameplay and the cutscenes, although the occassional "Bard's eye view" and good direction mean the cutscenes are immersive, and generally there is a good balance of cutscene to gameplay.
The sound is excellent, and a particular highpoint of the game. As well as strong voice acting, it has good atmospheric effects and background music, which adds to the game and atmosphere. This is particularly true during the songs and performance sequences.
Unfortunately the game's main weakness is the gameplay and lighting. Designed to be dark and atmospheric, in places it is too dark to dee what you are doing. Some levels are dark enough that you cannot see where you need to go, or get hung up on obsticles you can't see. Some of the camera angles contribute to this problem. It is also possible to have problems with smaller enemies being blocked by your larger sprites, making targeting difficult. The summon creatures are good, but their AI is fairly basic, leaving the Bard as your main fighter in several battles.
It is a single-player game, with no multi-player even on the PC. However it has a reasonable play length, and lasts about 20 hours. There are numerous paths though the game, and the number of hidden quests and a few endings give it reasonable replay value. However before replaying it, you may give it a few weeks to get the songs out of your head.
While it is available as a console game (on Xbox and PS2) the PC version provides much the same play experience. One bonus with the PC version is that if you buy the right release it comes bundled with some of the earlier Bard's Tale games, which have nothing to do with this game and have completely different gameplay, but are a nice add-on.
One technical note: While I played this on XP without problems, I know people who have had trouble playing it on Vista, so check your machine's spec. This is also a game that definitely runs better with a lot of extra memory and a decent processor.
The Bard's Tale should have broad appeal. RPG and fantasy fans should enjoy it, but so should survival horror and action players looking for the sarcastic side of their hobby. Some sequences may be disturbing to younger players, and the smut and language definitely targets an older audience, but gamers in their teens and up should thoroughly enjoy it.
(An Update of my CIAO review).