Monday, August 25, 2008

Man flu

I have man flu. OK, so its really just a cold, but 'man flu' sounds so much more entertaining.

Here are my top tips for how to fight 'man flu':
  1. Don't use those 'cold & flu' combined pain relief and decongestant remedies like Lemsip (well, don't use them during the day, a Lemsip at night is OK). Because what happens is one out of the pain relief or the decongestant runs out of effectiveness before the other and you end up having to wait a few hours before you can have another.
  2. Contac. I don't know if the rest of the world has this, but in the UK, these are the best. Slow release capsules of pseudoephadrine hydrochloride. Basically, its a decongestant that actually works for about 10 hours. Take one when you wake up and another about 10 or 11 hours later.
  3. Pain killers. Ibuprofen works best for me. Take as often as you're allowed to.
  4. Zinc. Someone told me about this a few years back and I was sceptical, but it seems to actually work. As soon as you feel the onset of a cold, start taking Zinc supplements. This boosts your immune system. It doesn't diminish the symptoms of a cold, but it does (appear to) shorten the duration of a cold. Since I've been taking Zinc during colds, I can only remember one cold that was bad for more than two days (sure, there's a few days of sniffling after that, but only two days of blocked noses and aches).
  5. Eat chili and drink orange juice. Just because.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
A man called George Lucas wrote and directed
a kids film called Star Wars. An entire generation

of kids (and some grown ups) loved it. He followed

it up with a more 'grown up' sequel. And everyone

loved it. He followed that with a more kid
friendly sequel and some folk weren't happy...

Some years later he made another kids film and most of his original audience (now in their late 20s and 30s) complained - because it was a kids film. So he made the next two films a bit more grown up, and still people weren't happy. Sigh, some people.

So now, the new Star Wars film is out, and its unashamedly a kids film. And of course people are unhappy. Except the kids, obviously. And kids at heart, like me.

Because if you accept that this movie is a kids film, you might enjoy it. A lot.

What was wrong with the three 'prequels'? In my opinion, it was largely Jar-Jar in 'The Phantom Menace' and the love story in the other two. This film has neither of those two elements.

Its just a simple story of Jedis doing Jedi stuff set in the middle of lots of battles and other action. This is what the kids want. Its great.

The central plot (Anakin and his new padawan are sent to find and rescue the baby son of Jabba the Hutt) did feel a bit like the sort of story you would have got in the old 'Dungeons & Dragons' cartoon in the 80s, but so what? It was wrapped in an all-action, fantastic looking, fully theatrical experience.

I know my baby son is only 3 months old, but I'm already looking forward to watching this with him when he's bigger. (Let's face it, it'll be a long time before I let him watch Episode III).

This film is no more or less than 'Attack of the Clones, part II'. If the thought of that fills you with dread, steer clear. If that appeals to you, you'll like this.

The only bit that seemed a bit odd and out of place was the character of Jabba the Hutt's uncle - who seems to be a giant-slug drag queen in a dodgy part of town. Um, where did that come from, and why?

But I'm really looking forward to the TV series now. Bring it on...

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Doctor Who in the cinema?

See this news story....

Could be fun. ;o)

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Friday, August 22, 2008

War of the Worlds (one man show)

"Take a look around you
at the
world we've come to know,
Does it seem to be much more

than a crazy circus show?
But maybe from the madness

something beautiful will grow,

In a brave new world,

With just a handful of men.

We'll start, we'll start all over again..."

Just a handful of men? How about only one man?

No one would have believed in the first years of the 21st century that Jeff Wayne's musical epic "The War of the Worlds" could be performed in under an hour at the Edinburgh Fringe. No one could have dreamed that it could be done by one man. Few men even considered the possibility that Jeff Wayne himself would give permission for such a show. And yet in one of the Niddry Street vaults of the 'Underbelly' venue, a mind immeasurably superior to ours dreamed up an excellent show and slowly but surely he performed this play before us.
I think it would be fair to say that I'm a fan of "War of the Worlds". I love the H.G. Wells book. I used to have a tape of the talking book of it (in the 1980s) which I wore out through over-playing. I love Jeff Wayne's musical version of it. I like the 1953 movie. I have a tape of Orson Welles's 1938 radio show. I loved the recent movie starring Tom Cruise. Basically, I like it. A lot.

So when I saw it was on at the Fringe this year, it was my only 'must see' show. I went to see it yesterday. I wasn't sure I was going to like it - how could one man perform the story? How could one man sing the songs? (was he going to sing the songs or was the tape just going to play them?) Was he going to try and play any of the music? Hang on, there's at least one female role in there, how can one man perform 'Spirit of Man' (a duet between Phil Lynott and Julie Covington on the original musical)? But I went and found out.

The venue ("Underbelly's Baby Belly 1") is one of the Niddry Street Vaults - supposedly one of the most haunted places in Edinburgh. Its basically a stone and brick cavern, wide enough for ten chairs with an aisle up the middle and deep enough for a stage (circa 10 feet deep) and about 20 rows of seats. The vaulted ceiling is quite high up and was covered in sheets for the Fringe. Basically, its an atmospheric place. The audience were ushered in at the start of the allotted time with "The Eve of the War" already playing. About half the seats in the place were filled. But it was a Thursday at 4:20pm, so that's not too bad.

Once we were all sitting in place, Pip Utton ran up the aisle, leaped onto the stage and began performing with some of the most iconic words in English literature "No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century..."

I'm always the same when watching plays. The opening few minutes are always a disappointment to me. I'm like "is that it? Just a man in a waistcoat on stage..." this feeling of slight disappointment came to a head when he got to the (almost as iconic) "The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one he said..." - yes, he sung them. But while he hit all the right notes, the man is clearly not a singer. And his timing on some of the words was off slightly. Oh dear.

But then we got into the meat of the story, the cylinder landing on Horsell Common, and the ensuing events, and I was captivated. Next time he sang I realised he was acting in song, not singing. He wasn't aiming to reproduce the vocal performances of the original musical version, he was telling the story and occasionally doing so in song. Thus, his performance of Forever Autumn, while not as musically perfect as the CD was still beautiful and actually more moving than the original. You could feel the loss in the guy's voice: "A gentle rain falls softly on my weary eyes, as if to hide a lonely tear, my life will be forever autumn, 'cause you're not here..." Heartbreaking - in a way that the CD never is.

Of course, to bring the show down to about a 50 minute run time, some of the story and songs had to be abbreviated and one of the songs dropped entirely. Given that this was a one man show it was quite reasonable that 'Spirit of Man' was dropped and the character of Beth, the Parson's wife was lost from the story. That was a shame - as I really like that song - but I guess it had to be done. Thus the performer had only three primary roles to play: The un-named journalist who narrates the story (i.e. Richard Burton in the original recording), the artilleryman (David Essex) and the Parson (Phil Lynott). While performing the character of the artilleryman, he used an accent very similar to David Essex's from the original recording, but also somehow managed to convey a different character through body language. Surprisingly, the Parson was portrayed using a Welsh accent. This worked rather well.

The performance was generally excellent, if I hadn't known every word of the script fairly well I'd only have noticed him fluff his lines once (actually I noticed three deviations from the original words, but two of them would have passed the non geeks by entirely). The only prop on stage was a small 'hill' on the right hand side, but its amazing how much of the atmosphere of the story can be conveyed by a masterful storyteller and some careful use of green, red and white spotlights.

So all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended (there's 3 days left, so hurry up). And I'm now - more than ever - inclined to go to the full-scale 30th anniversary tour next year. Tickets on sale in October. If its half as good as the one man show, it'll be great.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

The way it should be is not the way it is...

Why isn't life simple?
  • When I was a young teenager, my local radio station played the music I wanted to hear and a local department store sold the kind of clothes I wanted (my Mum) to buy (for me).
  • When I was an older teenager, BBC Radio 1 played the music I wanted to hear and Top Man sold the clothes I wanted to buy.
  • As an undergrad student, there wasn't really a radio station that played what I wanted to hear and clothes came from Burtons.
  • As a postgrad student, Virgin radio played the music I wanted to hear and River Island was the shop of choice.
  • As a late 20 something, Virgin continued to play the music I wanted to hear, but I found myself shopping in Next for clothes.
  • In my early 30s I found myself listening to BBC Radio 2 (during the day, never in the evenings) and clothes seemed to come from Gap or Next.
  • Now in my late 30s, I find myself listening to Planet Rock or 96.3 Rock Radio (thanks to a DAB radio) and clothes seem to come mostly from Gap or Fat Face.
Why couldn't things like radio stations and clothes shops just make life easy for us? Why don't they just age with us? Every 5 years or so, the BBC should invent a new radio station which should age along with its listeners. And a new clothes chain should appear, targeting one age group and then aging with that age group. It would be a much better system.

You see, as I approach the transition from thirtysomething into fortysomething (not for another couple of years, mind) I find myself wondering where I'll be buying clothes from and what I'll be listening to in a few years time...

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Extreme: Saudades de Rock

Its a bad title. Apparently 'saudades' (pronounced 'sow-dodge') means something like 'vague nostalgic yearning' - a nostalgic yearning for rock. Unfortunately, this is a feeling you are left with after having listened to the album.

In their time together (the first time around) Extreme managed to produce two excellent albums bookended by two which were OK, with occasional flashes of greatness. After they split in 1996, Gary Cherone went on to various stage musical roles, was briefly a member of Van Halen, recorded a depressing album called 'Exit Elvis' by 'Tribe of Judah' and then released a really quite bad (and very middle of the road) EP under the name of 'Cherone'. Nuno Bettencourt on the other hand has had a quite interesting 'solo' career. One album released under his own name, two under the name of 'Mourning Widows', one CD and an EP under the name of 'Population 1' and a CD under the name of 'Dramagods' - all of these (IMO) either very good (Nuno CD, 2nd Mourning Widows, Dramagods) or excellent (1st Mourning Widows CD, Population 1). I think its fair to say that Gary needs Nuno more than Nuno needs Gary. But neither had great post-Extreme financial success. So the reunion was inevitable.

And so, 13 years since the last Extreme album we have "Saudades de Rock". As you'd expect, this album has many bits which are basically the band trying to prove that they're still the band they once were. Also it has many bits that sound like the sort of stuff Nuno has been doing on his own for the past decade. But sadly it doesn't have anything new and fresh, its all nostalgia and stuff we've already heard before.

Track by track:
  1. Star: This song is here to proclaim that this is the same band you used to like. Guitar riffs and verses are basically the distilled essence of 'Pornograffitti' while the harmonies on the chorus are more like 'III sides'. I think in time the chorus will get really annoying, but on the first few listens its quite a good song.
  2. Comfortably dumb: Another song in the funk-rock style of 'Pornograffitti'. But not that interesting.
  3. Learn to love: Oh. Another song in the style of 'Pornograffitti'. Yawn. It also instills a bit of the Zep-influenced 'Punchline' album. By this point I'm getting bored of hearing Gary Cherone scream rather than singing.
  4. Take us alive: Thankfully this track is more interesting and fun than the three that have preceded it. This is flavoured with 'tex-mex' seasoning. I could have said 'country' there, but thankfully it doesn't go that far. I like this one a lot.
  5. Run: Not very interesting, but at least this is in the style of 'III sides' a bit more. Variety is good.
  6. Last hour: One of those quiet-shouty-quiet-shouty type songs. I quite like it, but fear that I might tire of it.
  7. Flower man: If you've heard Nuno's solo album you'll recognise this song as basically 'Two Weeks in Dizkneelande' with different lyrics. If you've not heard the Nuno track, this will probably be one of the best tracks on the album for you.
  8. King of the ladies: Oh dear, this is embarrassing. More nostalgia. With bad lyrics.
  9. Ghost: Starts like a ballad, this album should have had one before now, but builds in beat as the song goes on. Nice piano and vocal performance. You can see the Queen influence quite clearly.
  10. Slide: Nice and funky album filler track. But quite good for that.
  11. Interface: This song is on Nuno's last album, 'Love' by Dramagods. Its a nice song, but the new version doesn't really add anything to the existing version.
  12. Sunrise: Slow funk-rock with a touch of Zep. Degenerates into stereotypical Extreme for the solo. But one of the better tracks on the album for all that.
  13. Peace (Saudade): Saving the best for last. Quiet, slow and beautiful. This is the stand-out track on the album. Shame it comes so late in the day.
  14. Americocaine (Demo 1985): A funny way to end the 'comeback' album, with an old song that wasn't good enough to put on any of the earlier albums. Just sounds like late 80s album filler material.
So, all in all, a disappointing album with a couple of highlights. I think I'll still go and see them in concert when they get to Scotland (Glasgow Carling Academy, Sat 15th November) but I'll be hoping for a greatest hits set, not a set full of the new stuff.

But maybe the album will grow on me...

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Toshiba Portégé G910 gadget phone review

For over the past two years I've had an i-Mate JAMin PDA phone as a constant companion. I really like it. It had all of the things I was looking for in a PDA/phone/gadget when it came out, and it has generally been great to use ever since. But it is getting a bit old and tired, scratched and scuffed and doesn't behave itself as much as it used to (it hardly ever needed reset for the first 18 months or so, then got a bit crotchety). So I've got a new gadget phone. But before I tell you about that, I need to put it in context of the JAMin.

Most people use a phone primarily as a phone, or at least as a text-machine. But I don't get too many incoming calls on my mobile and make even less outgoing calls. My previous phones had been primarily text-machines with occasional calls. Upgrading to the JAMin meant my 'phone' became primarily an e-mail and text machine, with occasional calls. The thing has wi-fi, so the i-Mate became my primary means of checking and responding to e-mail when I was at home. You can also browse the web with it, and it was regularly used to check for the (late) running times of the trains to and from Dalmeny station, read the BBC news and even shop on eBay and Amazon. But most websites are quite annoying on a 240 x 320 screen, even if you rotate the device and make it 'landscape orientation'.

But one of the greatest features of the phone was as an entertainment device. Occasionally as an mp3 player, but more commonly (on planes and trains) as a video device. Load up TCPMP and a DivX movie (resized to 320 x 240 or the processor couldn't cope) and its great for passing the time on short European flights or trains across Scotland. OK, the screen's not as big as an iPod Touch or iPhone, but its bigger (though the same resolution) than the standard iPod Video.

However, that's not to say the device was perfect. It has a few limitations. The main three (according to the way I use the thing) were:
  1. The stylus text entry is clumsy at best, becomes hard on trains and impossible on moving buses. I have an external bluetooth keyboard, but you can't just pull that out to send a text from a bus.
  2. If you keep the thing in your pocket (as I do) you need some form of hard case to protect the screen. This makes it more bulky.
  3. There's only so much you can fit onto a 320 x 240 screen.
And since I got the JAMin some other cool features have become standard on phones like this, including GPS and 'mobile internet' via 3G and HSDPA services.

All this by means of introduction.

After reading up about all the current gadget phones, the best one - for my purposes - seemed to be the Toshiba Portégé G910 which came out in May. On paper it appeared to do everything the JAMin did, but looked like it would score above the JAMin on these criteria:
  1. It has a QWERTY keyboard, so texting on a bus becomes possible.
  2. Its clamshell, so the screen is protected when the thing is in your pocket.
  3. It has an 800 x 480 WVGA screen, much better for websurfing.
  4. It also has 'mobile internet' for surfing and e-mail outwith wi-fi zones.
  5. It has GPS for satnav purposes.
  6. It has Windows Mobile 6 (pro) rather than 5 (pro).
But, after three weeks of use, does it live up to expectations?

Well, mostly. The keyboard and screen are brilliant. Text entry is a breeze on the full keyboard, either with two thumbs when held in your hands or even with several fingers when the thing is on a desk. This is unquestionably the best keypad on a current PDA phone that I've seen or used, way better than the HTC TYTN II and all flavours of Blackberry. You can actually write sensible length documents on this if you want.

And the screen is great. You can adjust the default text size so that you can balance the amount of information to text size to fit your particular eyesight level (I've opted for small, but not smallest text). In the web browser you can switch 'hi res' mode on and finally get to see web pages in their entirety on a PDA screen without excessive amounts of scrolling left to right. Fab.

But. The video drivers aren't very good. I was really looking forward to the larger screen for on-flight video watching, but until Toshiba updates the video drivers, watching video isn't really an option. The screen seems to refresh only two or three times a second, which is way too slow for sensible video watching.

The GPS/satnav is great - I bought 'Route 66 Mobile 8' which is apprently the only software that works on the G910. So far I've not been to anywhere I don't know, so can't really rate it in practice, but the thing was able to tell me how to get home the other night...

Mobile internet is also great (except exactly where I live where there is no 3G coverage) and e-mail and web pages load much faster than on GPRS on the JAMin.

So, all in all, its a great device with one major (from my point of view) failing, its inablility to play videos.

I also have some very minor nit-picks which I may as well mention:
  1. I don't like the stylus. Its too fiddly and thin. And stylus entry on the screen is awkward. Thankfully there's not much stylus usage needed on a device with such a great keypad, but you still occasionally have to use it. To overcome this problem I've installed Spb Mobile Shell software (only $30 - which is great value) which makes WM6pro far more fingertip friendly - most operations can be done by using my fingers on the screen, not having to use the stylus.
  2. The clamshell opens the wrong way. I realise that they have designed the thing so that the 'front' of the device is kind of like the front of a pocket diary, so the hinge is on the left, but to my hands the device feels like it should open the other way. That would also place the camera behind the screen, rather than on the base, where it is kinda clumsily placed just now. Also, when in a call, opening the clamshell should automatically put the thing into speakerphone mode, which it doesn't.
  3. You can't rotate the screen. It only operates in 'landscape' mode. Which is fine most of the time, but it means all your old software which assumes a portrait display can't be used anymore. So my much used Sudoku game has had to be replaced with a far inferior version which works in landscape mode.
  4. The microSD card isn't SDHD, so 2Gb is the upper limit. Shame.
  5. Finally, the camera is badly positioned and tricky to operate. Its also only a 2M pix camera, which is way below standard in these days of LG Viewtys. It really feels like they thought 'oh, and I suppose we have to have a camera as well, oh well, stick one in somewhere...'
I've read some reviews saying this device is unusable due to failings with WM6.0 and really needs 6.1 - can't say I've had many problems. I did neet to soft-reset it a few times in the first couple of days, but since then I've only had to reset about once a week. I can live with that. Not as stable as the JAMin was, but stable enough. Apparently it is now shipping with 6.1 installed.

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