Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Sky+ Remote Will Change Your Life

What is it?

This is a remote control that will control any Sky+ box remotely, without any wires.  It's a marvel of the technological age, at the precipice of functionality, a beacon of light to anyone who sits on their sofa and can't be arsed to get up and change the channel themselves.  No longer do you have to sellotape several chopsticks together.  No longer do you have to order the children.  No longer do you have to train several small Pygmy Marmosets to do it for you.  Point this thing at the flat box in the corner and press a button.  Any button, it doesn't matter (well, it does) and you're home craft / animal / children training proclivities are over.


Ah, but it does more than change channels doesn't it?

Yes, it does.  It opens up a whole world of remote-controlololeredness.  Not only does it have numbered buttons it also has access to other Sky and Sky+ services.  Gaze in amazement as you can change the volume on your telly, any telly.  Gasp in wonder as previously-recorded TV programming is displayed back at you in all that multi-coloured glory.  Faint in sheer shock as live TV is paused.  Yes, you can stop time with this thing.  It's an actual living breathing time machine.  Well, it's a controllololer for a time-machine but that's as good as ...


What does it look like?
It's an attractive grey, similar to that of skeleton bone that has been left to decay for exactly three months and 2 days.  It's a peculiar shape, with a sloping front end and the sides curve inwards slightly like the figure of some non-descript female politician who wears unflattering clothes.  The battery compartment is covered by 53.2% of the rear-side of the control and is made out of a synthesized rubber material.  You can put your knees up and rest the remote on top and it won't slide back down.  A nice touch.  My 'nads have been saved plenty of time by the decent amount of non-slippage afforded by the ingenious back cover.



The cover to the infra-red light is black but the light can be seen through the smoked plastic from the top-down of the remote.  This is handy so you know when a button is being depressed on the front side of the remote control.  Of course, by depressing a button you have to make it happy and I suggest singing Captain Sensible's 'Happy Talk' or even playing it a DVD of 'See You Next Wednesday', that perennial, seminal surfing classic.

Buttons, lot and lots of buttons

There are 38 buttons on the remote control altogether but 3 of them are multi-function, extending the number of functions to ... erm ... 38 + (3 * 2) = 96!  No, that's not right.  Wait, I can do this ... erm ... 38, carry the 1, minus 17, add 102 equals 44 functions!  Got it!  At last.

The list of 38 buttons is thus:

1.  Power - Switches off or on the Sky+ box.  Please note, all the following function and buttons require the Sky+ to be switched ON.  You can tell this as there is a green light on the front of the Sky+ box.  A red light means it is turned OFF.  This is an important thing to remember and whatever you do, don't spend hours waiting for Sky+ technical support to ring you back simply for them to ask if you've turned it on.  You WILL be embarrassed.

2.  TV - Switches the Sky+ box to 'TV' mode. 

3.  Sky - Switches the Sky+ box to 'Sky' mode.  No-one knows the difference.  It's a mystery you have to find out for yourself.  WooOOoo.

4.  TV Guide - Brings up the TV guide.  This isn't a magazine that is attached to the front of the telly via selloptape.  No, it brings up a proper digitial re-enactment of a TV guide onto the screen.  You can move about the TV guide, select a programme to watch or even set one to record in the future.  Wow.  (see points 19 - 24 below).

5.  Box Office
- A lady wearing a strange costume and chewing gum appears magically in your home.  She will charge you ten quid for a bag of popcorn and a small coke.  Upgrade to a large coke for only ten pence extra, it's worth it.  On some models, this button may bring up the Box Office movies section on the TV as presented by Sky.


6.  Service - Order massage, pizza and other things here.  It may allow you to change settings and things but those massage and pizzas always distract me first.


7.  Interactive - Interact with your remote control.  Take it out.  Talk to it.  Caress its smooth curves.  Feel the synthesized rubber-back and removable battery cover.  Ooh yeah, right there baby.  TURN ME ON YOU DEVIL-SPAWNED SEX MONKEY.

8.  Mute
- Turns off the volume.  Doesn't work with kids, I've tried.  If the volume has previously been muted, it will un-mute.  Trying it again will un-un-mute.  Again and it will be un-un-un-muted.  Etc.

9.  i - Note the small 'i'.  Not a big 'i' (I), but a small 'i'.   I once knew a kid with a small eye.  He used to keep dead flies in his pencil case.  Strange boy.  The 'i' here will give information about the current program, or something.


10 and 11. - Vol + - Right, it starts getting complicated now.  This will change the volume of your telly.  However, see Appendix A below to see how to make *your* telly volume work with a Sky+ remote.  Pressing the '+' part of the button makes the telly get louder.  Try it now.  IT'S TOO LOUD.  TRY PRESSING THE '-' PART OF THE BUTTON TO MAKE IT quieter.  Thank you, that's better.

12,13,14,15 and 16.  Centre Cluster
- This is the main central cluster of the remote control and consists of UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT and SELECT buttons.  These buttons act as cursor keys and allow you to move the cursor around on the TV screen.  Pressing UP moves it up.  Pressing DOWN moves it down.  Etc.  Confusingly, when you are watching a TV program, pressing UP will move the TV guide down.  Pressing DOWN will move the TV guide up.  And even more strangely, pressing LEFT will move the TV guide left and pressing RIGHT will move the TV guide to the right as you'd expect it to.  How weird is that?

17.  Text - This brings up text messages from your phone.  Ho ho, I kid, no it doesn't.  It brings up Sky Text, a crap service that's no use to anyone.  Remove this button from your remote with a sharp knife. 

18.  Back Up - This has happened to everyone hasn't it?  The wife's gone round to her friends for a girly night out and you're left alone with Sky+ for company.  You accidentally find yourself 'browsing' the adult section of the TV guide.  Before you know it, it's asking if you want to purchase 'Lonely Amateurs 4' - NO, BACK UP, BACK UP, I CAN HEAR THE DOOR BEING OPENED, CANCEL, CANCEL, ABORT, ABORT.  Use this button to do that, you perv.  It will also cancel any menu operation.

19.  Help - Sends out a distress signal by shining a light into the cloud-covered sky.  Within minutes, Rupert Murdoch himself will parachute down a zip line straight into your living room and fix whatever it is you want help on.  Apart from that, it's rubbish.  It offers no help whatsoever except for some garbled message in German.  Or maybe that's something to do with our Sky+ being switched to the German language and we don't know how to get it back.  Tip:  Never let a two-year old play with the remote control.  They're worse than Rhesus monkeys.


20, 21, 22, 23  << , >> , || and >.   These are the important, life-changing buttons.  They do what Jules Verne never could.  They pause live TV.  *Cue dramatic music*.  Operating just like one of those old steam-powered VHS recorders from the 1850's, you can now stop what's happening mid-stroke, check to make sure no-one is coming down the gravel path, then carry on with the action.  It's brilliant.  Pressing the forward-wind (>>) or backward-wind (<<) several times makes the action go faster with each press.  Soon, everything looks like one of those old funny Benny Hill programmes with barely-naked women chasing a lecherous bloke around a park while slapping a small bald bloke on the head.  The speeds vary from x2 to x6 to x12 to a whopping x30.  That's like, well fast man.


24.  R - Is akin to the old-fashioned Record buttons on the afore-mentioned VCR's.  This button will (R)ecord a program if you're watching it or if you're in the telly guide (see point 4 above), it will put the programme into the planner for recording later.  You can even watch another channel while it's recording and you don't have to speak in whispers either - it will safely record TV without picking up your voices.

25. [] - Will stop recording or playing the current TV programme.  Seriously, if you need to know what a [Stop] button does, you shouldn't be allowed out of the house.

26, 27, 28 and 29.  [Red] , [Yellow] , [Green] and [Blue].  - I like these buttons, they are my favourite.  They're very colourful and do different things.  They all press the same though and there's no discernible difference between pressage on the Red or pressage on the Blue, for example.  Of course, depending on what you want Sky+ to do, they do different things.  Green will set a reminder on an advert (occasionally).  Blue will not only scroll 24 hours into the future and allow you to jot down the upcoming lottery results, they will also scroll through your favourite TV channels.  Yellow is pretty poor and hardly does anything, the loser.  Red is the big bully of the four and often makes Yellow cry.  I don't like Red.

30 - 40.  [1] to [0] respectively.  These are number buttons.  Numbers were invented in the 1960's by Casio when they brought out calculators.  Prior to that, numbers were represented by balls on a piece of wire.  Romans used letters as numbers, the weirdos.  The numbers on this remote control allow you to tap in a channel number, a pin number for, ahem, adult-orientated entertainment or to move to a particular time frame of a pre-recorded television programme.  62 minutes into Lady Chatterly's Lover is a good one, for example.


41 and 42.  P+ and P-.  These will change the channels on your Sky+ digi-mi-box.  It only goes up or down (the plus and minus buttons you see?).

Have I miscounted somewhere?

Specifications

The unit takes two triple-A batteries (AAA).  They last ages but you must change them quickly when they go or the Sky+ melts like the Wicked Witch of the West does in Wizard of Oz as a bucket of water is 'accidentally' thrown over her (she meant to do it!).  Helpfully, Sky+ knows when the battery power is low.  Perhaps it sneaks out at night when you're in bed and attaches a battery meter so it knows?

It measures 185x52x25cm and weighs 150g unladen.  It doesn't feel too heavy in the hand, I'd say about the same as 150g of flour. 

Appendix A: Setting up the remote so it will change the volume on your TV

1.  Google this: 'Sky+ remote control TV codes big bongos' and find a website with a list of codes on it.  Try not to be distracted by everything else the Internet offers.

2.  Select a channel on the TV (doesn't matter which.  Don't choose 819 if you're expecting people round).

3.  Press the TV button away from the Sky+ so it doesn't register the button press.

4.  Now pointing at the TV, press and hold the Sky+ and Red buttons together AT THE SAME TIME.  The little red light will flash twice.

5.  Type in the four-digit code that matches your TV.  The red light will flash twice to signify it has worked.

6.  Try the volume control on the Sky+ remote.  Your TV will now be magically under the power of the remote which is in the power of your hand which is in the power of your brain.  YOU HAVE THE POWER.  Sheesh, some people.

7.  Send me copious amounts of money because I'm brilliant.  I also accept cheese sandwiches.

Sometimes there is more than one code and it's a case of trying them all.  It does work, honest.

Conclusion

I'm very happy with our replacement Sky+ remote control.  It works exactly like the original one did and after a bit of faffing around with the TV codes, I can now ditch the volume control for the telly too.  Button pressage is positive and everything works.  It feels sturdy enough and our original one lasted many years.  I expect this to do the same.

It's a remote, it controls Sky+, it won't change your life dramatically but it will set you back about £25.00.  Sorted.  Oh, it's pretty good too.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Album review: Our Little Secret by Lords of Acid

*** Warning *** Warning ***

This is a review of an X-rated album.  As such, adult themes are a feature of this review.  If you are easily offended, please do not continue reading and proceed to the nearest Daily Mail.

Who are they?

Lords of Acid are a Belgium dance music group with origins dating back to the late 80's rave music scene.  Also known as Digital Orgasm, their style can be classed as EBM (Electronic Beat Music) which is rather like a cross between Industrial Dance, Techno and Acid House.  Main vocals are provided by Jade 4 U aka Darling Nikkie aka Nikkie Van Lierop, a well-regarded music producer in her own right and one whom has contributed to several Hollywood films as well as a strong back catalogue of recording artistes.  Her voice is strong, tuneful, playful, has a wide range and is capable of producing an eclectic mix of tones.  Behind the decks, so to speak, is Praga Khan (real name: Maurice Engelen), a dance music pioneer from Belgium.  It sounds a contradiction to include the words, 'Belgium', 'Dance Music' and 'Pioneer' in one sentence but here, he does a good job of capturing that hardcore, rave music vibe.

What's the music like?

My Little Secret was released in 1997 and is Lords of Acid third album after '''Lust''' (1991) and '''Voodoo-U''' (1994).  'Secret', like their other albums, is an intruiging mix of post-punk techno, faintly ridiculous lyrics and an overtly-sexual, often perverse sense of humour. 


Kicking off with '''Lover''' (3'55), cue robotic breathless woman giving way to heavy 4-to-the-floor dance beats and hard, driving melodies.  _"Lover, I will come for you, Lover, anytime you want me to"_.  Ah, that's sweet of you.  It's quite reminiscent of The Prodigy around the time of the FOTL album, swirling techno synths layered over sampled guitars.  Showing off their wicked humour is '''Rubber Doll''' (3'11) which tells the tale of a rubber sex doll.  There is an over-riding arpeggiated Goa-trance melody and a basic drum-machine beat turned up to 11.  _"Her mouth is always open, ready to please, she's always quiet, she never complains"_. 

'''Fingerlickin' Good''' (3'45) is one of the stand-out tracks on the album. _"Abso-f*****g-lutely, mind-blowing super sexy, so delicious, it's fingerlickin' good"_.  Dark melodic synths, grungy guitars and bass propelled forward by a nasty drum beat all combine to create a very hooky, rememberable tune.  I doubt KFC will use it in an advertising campaign though.  The pace continues and never lets up with '''LSD=Truth''' (4'10).  Hymnal voices being hi-jacked by vicious drums, screeching vocals and 808 tones.  The lyrics are pure nonsense, as you'd expect for a song about LSD. 

'''Man's Best Friend''' (3'14), in this case, is not a dog but a prostitute and is as close to reflective as Lords of Acid gets.  _"No-one to cling to, nobody cares, nobody listens, no-one knows her feelings as she walks the streets at night"_.  Quite true.  '''Cybersex''' (4'00) is about the online presence we all have and how we can be who we want to be.  That 18 year old Britney Spears look-alike you think you're talking to?  That's Ron Dinkum, 45 year old male living with his mother and holder of the dubious title of 'Worlds Heaviest Porn Surfer'. 

'''Pussy''' (4'05).  _"I wanna see your pussy, show it to me"_, so shouts the chorus.  Intentionally funny, loaded with more double-entendre than a Frankie Howerd convention and sampled pussycat meowing sounds are paired up with a laid-back, beat-box melody.  What's not to like?  Probably the best track on the album and that line is about the only one I can repeat here.  The theme continues with '''Deep Sexy Space''' (2'30) which is pure 160bpm Eurotrash verging into Gabba / Junglist territory.  _"There's just no kick with a little dick"_.  Well I never, there's no need to be like that.  The whole Deep Sexy Space thing is tenuously linked by preferring men to aliens.  They've obviously never watched 'Earth Girls Are Easy'.

'''Doggie Tom''' (3'46).  _"Tom, Tom, Doggie Tom, You make me come, Tom."_.  There's a hidden message in this one somewhere and I can't quite put my finger in it, *on* it I mean.  Perhaps it's her beloved pooch?  God I hope not, although with Lords of Acid I wouldn't rule it out.  Actually, Doggie Tom, the man in question, is a perverted voyeur.  Of course he is, who isn't?  '''Me and Myself''' (4'14).  Or, an ode to onerism, you choose.  She loves herself a bit too much, figuratively and literally.  _"Just me, alone, with my gorgeous body, and f***ed-up brain"_.  Ooh love, go and see your Psychiamatrist already.  On second thoughts, after last time, probably not you weirdo. 

'''Spank My Booty''' (3'52) tells the tale of a masochist who gets off on being spanked and it describes her tumultuous relationship with an 85 year old boyfriend who beats her.  _"Bleeding badly, it was love at first strike, but just the other day, I hit him right back, the poor old b*st*rd had a heart attack."_.  How we laughed.  Of course, it's utterly reprehensible and if there's a song designed to shock, this is the one.  I just found it funny if I'm honest.  Yeah, yeah, we've seen the whole sado-maso thing before.  Move along please.

'''The Power is Mine''' (4'22) - _"Come on boy obey me, lick my boots to please, maybe I'll let loose your chains"_.  I think she needs to make her mind up.  Only a few seconds ago, you were telling us how you like to be submissive.  Now, you're making us beg to lick your boots?  Haven't you heard of Kiwi shoe-care products?  Plus, Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is on and I don't want to miss that.  I know we've got Sky+ but love, take off that spiky leather thong you're wearing and let's have a nice cup of Horlicks eh? 

'''You Belong To Me''' (9'40) - _"You can try and run away mother f**ker but I'll find you"_ kind of sets the tone for this darkly ominous tale of obsession, jealousy and all-consuming relationships.  _"Every single part of you, is mine, it belongs to me"_.  Steady on love, I only asked if you wanted to go for a coffee.  Call the Stalker Helpline and run, fast.  This track has a hidden song in it if you let it play long enough, at about the 5'40 mark.  It's all about horror films and very clever and rather chucklesome.  _"I wanna go, see a horror movie, Nightmare on Elm Street, how about it?"_.  Yeah alright then, I'm up for it.  Hang on, you're not going to do anything strange to me are you?  What's that spiky metal thing you're holding?  Ooh, saucy.

Track Listing
1. Lover (Cantata)
2. Rubber Doll (Opus)
3. Fingerlickin' Good
4. LSD=Truth (Solo)
5. Man's Best Friend
6. Cybersex (Scherzo)
7. Pussy (Round)
8. Deep Sexy Space
9. Doggie Tom (Overture)
10. (Concerto for) Me and Myself
11. Spank My Booty (Reprise)
12. The Power Is Mine (Coda)
13. You Belong to Me (Theme)
14. Horror Movie [hidden track]

The words in brackets were an ironical attempt by Lords of Acid to be high-brow.  It totally isn't.

Conclusion

It's not for everyone, that's a certainty.  But how times move on, and rapidly too.  What was considered cutting edge and 'sexy' in the mid 90's would probably now be shown on Blue Peter.  If Rihanna had done her X-Factor routine on Top of the Pops in the 80's, Mike Reid would have had an anuerism.  Madonna's 'Erotika' album and subsequent 'Sex' book are all laughable now (well, they were at the time too but let's move on). 

Unfortunately, Lords of Acid have also fallen victim to this exponential rise of a permissive and liberal society.  What might have been genuinely shocking, rude and / or (if you're a bit weird) sexy at the time, just comes across as forced, funny and faintly ridiculous.  Saying all that, Lords of Acid probably made this with studded tongue firmly in (most likely) studded cheek and unlike Madonna, they don't take themselves too seriously. 

Jade 4 U is an accomplished singer and I find her voice to be quite sexy.  I wouldn't take her to meet my mother, of course.  The tracks fulfil their ambition of providing hardcore dance music but are quite listenable, certainly in the mode of Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and a slew of other 90's dance acts.  I'm a reformed raver myself but occasionally, I like to tune out of Classic FM and put some of these old-skool records back on the 'decks'.  Peter Kay says it well; "Put some of that Smack Yer Bitch Up on, yer mam loves that".  Street.  Except now it's "Put some of that Spank My Booty on, yer Dad loves some of that". 



You'll like this if ... You like a bit of sauce on your bacon sandwich.
You won't like this if ... You write letters to The Guardian complaining Madge's top on Neighbours is too low-cut.

Can be found on Amazon for around £14.99 but shop around.

PS.  The album title, 'Our LIttle Secret' refers to the picture of the model on the cover.  It turns out 'she' isn't a female at all ...

Friday, August 26, 2011

Camera review : Sony A300 D-SLR

Introduction

The Sony A-range (or Alpha to give them their correct monicker), spans the entire gamut of digital cameras from entry-level models up to the higher end of the price spectrum.  The A300 was aimed at the D-SLR (Digitial Single Lens Reflex) beginner, costing £420.00 at time of purchase (2009) from Jessops as part of a deal including a filter, a bag and a 4GB SD memory card.


The Alpha branding was previously used by Minolta but after that company's acquisition by Sony in 2006, the technology and brand-name was introduced by Sony as their own.  This also means that Minolta's back catalogue of lenses also fit the Sony Alpha range.  For the purpose of this review and lack of an extended character set on this iPad, it shall be known henceforth as an A300 but take this to mean as Alpha-300, if that makes sense?

The A300, upon it's release in 2008, came just before HD video started to make it's way onto D-SLR's but it did have a very interesting gimmick - the live-view LCD was tiltable and could be positioned so as to be seen from different angles.  This allows, for example, the camera to be held high over the heads of a crowd to take a snap of the action while still viewing the display.  While live-view LCD's had been on fixed-lens compact cameras since before the dawn of time, they had only just started to make an appearance on the lower-end market of D-SLR's.

Look and feel

The Sony A300 is very sturdy and chunky in the hands and is most definitely not a lightweight machine.  I say hands, plural, as it's not a camera that can be operated with just one hand - it's just too heavy to hold with any kind of steadiness.  The right-hand grips the ergonomically-designed front grip while the left is used to hold the camera steady and to zoom or focus.  Using the viewfinder (as opposed to looking at the LCD) to frame shots also helps as the head provides an extra steady-point.


The right-hand grippage area is covered in a soft rubberised material meaning slippage is minimal.  More grippage and less slippage is an important consideration with a camera of this size, weight and yes, cost.  It weighs 582 grams (and the lens is extra) and measures 131mm x 99mm x 75mm.  That's well over half a kilo of camera to lug around.  The gold and silver trim is a little plasticky in places though and the entry-level price point means there are obvious corners to be cut *somewhere*.

The sturdiness I have had opportunity to test.  A (mis)fortuitous sequence of events led to the camera being thrown out of my camera bag at high speed onto hard, unforgiving pavement stone.  A heart-rending tinkling glass sound and a plethora of crunchy bits shaking behind the lens cover filled me with dread.  By incredible luck, I had fitted a cheap glass filter that came with the camera and this took the brunt of the impact.  The filter had smashed but the lens was undamaged, as was the body.  I knelt down and gave praise to my lucky stars and the camera has given me no problems since.  A lesson was learnt.  Fitting a £5 filter saved an expensive lens and possibly body too.

Controls

Everything is where it's supposed to be and the buttons are suitably chunky to fit in with the rest of the camera.  The shutter button is within easy reach of the index finger and while hand-sizes vary, I've found my much smaller wife can operate it with the same ease as I can.  With the hand in a natural position, photographs are a doddle to take.  There is a lip that allows the camera to rest on the middle finger while the index finger does the shooting.  The thumb is then free to operate the buttons on the back.

There is a jog-wheel just to the side of the shutter button and this allows settings of the A300 to be rotated through depending on the mode of the camera. In picture playback mode for example, it flicks through the pictures.  While looking through the viewfinder, there is a graphical display showing which setting is being changed.

There is a shooting-mode wheel on the left hand side and as its name would indicate, this allows different shooting modes to be instigated.  As per compact cameras, there are modes for portraits, landscapes, night shooting etc but as this is a single-lens reflex camera, there are other options that allow for a much greater degree of control over the finished picture.



Shutter Priority mode for example, allows the shutter speed to be manually adjusted to a fine degree.  For a fast moving subject, select a very fast speed such as 1/750th of a second or more.  The fastest is 1/4000th of a second while the slowest speed is 30 seconds that can be used to photograph scenes with very low ambient light.  There is also a 'bulb' mode where the shutter is continuously open allowing things such as star trails to be photographed.  For this and for any slow shutter speed shot, it is imperative the camera is held steady such as on a tripod and an external control is used to 'hold' the shutter button in an open position.  On the left side, you will find a small recess covered by a rubber clip housing the connector for an external control source.

The all-important (nowadays anyway) menus are easy enough to navigate with usually clear instructions on which button to press.  A couple of the buttons are in awkward places such as the ISO selector.  These are located on the top cluster, shoe-horned in between the flash and shooting button and I find I have to move my whole hand to access the controls in that area.  These buttons also double-up in picture-playback mode as image manipulation controls such as zooming and panning.  Most of the controls I can operate with gloved hands but some of those such as those in the top cluster, my hands have to be au naturelle.

The Lens

The supplied 18-70mm lens is considered to be practical for everyday use and is a manual zoom, that is, you have to twist it round to make objects appear closer.  The lens is interchangeable and there is a wide range of other lenses that can be used but make sure you pick one with the correct mountings.  Only Sony or older Minolta lenses will fit.  It's a shame there isn't some kind of universal lens attachment but there you go.  It's easy enough to clean and a small lens cloth is essential.  The official Sony lens cap that came with the kit fits well but disappointingly there is no lug to fit a cord meaning it is easy to misplace.  I know this from bitter experience.

Filters (as far as I know) ARE a universal fit and these will screw onto the very finely engineered screw fitting on the front of the lens without having to remove anything (except the lens cap of course).  As mentioned, fitting a filter as standard is a cheap way to protect that lens, as well as enhancing your photos.

It has auto and manual focus modes, with a switch on the side of the lens mount to alternate.  Manual focussing is achieved by twisting the focus ring on the end of the lens.  Auto-focus is still highly configurable with 12 separate focus points to choose from.  It can be a bit fiddly to make it focus on the actual part you want it to focus on.  Half-pressing the shutter button rotates around the focus points (as seen through the viewfinder) and it's a case of clicking until it's highlighted the one you want.  Most of the time it works fine but sometimes it focusses on things it shouldn't. 


One thing that really niggles me is if the camera is switched on with the focus mode set to 'Manual', it reverts back to 'Auto' regardless of the switch position.  Flicking it back and forth resolves the issue; until it's turned off and back on again of course. 

The Tilting LCD

The tilting LCD is lovely, I have to say.  It's clear enough and while not the largest in the camera market, it's certainly adequate to see photos in reasonable detail, enough to determine if the photo is good for later use.  The only problem here, and one not exclusive to the A300, is that of slightly out of focus photos.  Often they look fine on the low resolution LCD, but when viewed on a much higher resolution computer monitor, the fault is much more apparent.

It tilts downwards at nearly 45 degrees and it will point upwards completely horizontally - 90 degrees from it's starting position.  It's more than just a gimmick as on a tripod it allows for shot-finding so much easier but please note, it doesn't tilt far enough for self-portraits to be taken.

In live-view, the LCD not only shows what the lens is seeing (a major achievement for SLR cameras) but also what the finished photo is like after any adjustments have been made, such as focus, aperture and shutter speed.  A real boon.  In other live-view systems, there is a noticeable lag between pressing the shutter button and the actual picture being taken.  This is because those cameras have to flip an internal mirror back down to redirect light onto the photographic sensor.  Here, Sony have utilised a clever double mirror arrangement and there is no lag at all when taking a photo.  Very nice indeed and not a feature that is normally found on a base-level model.

Flash, ah ha, saviour of the universe

The A300's flash in auto-flash mode will pop up automatically if the light sensor deems it necessary.  It's very sensitive and I've found it will do it on cloudy days when I would have preferred it not to.  The men option to turn it off is relatively straight-forward with only 3 button presses of the joypad to do so.

In its open position, the flash is not too far away from the body meaning the light it gives out is very close to eye-level of the picture subject so red-eye can be a problem.  Shadowing often occurs too and many a time I've had to retake a photo from a slightly different angle so the flash is not encumbered.  The fastest speed with which the A300 supports flash sync is 1/160th of a second.  This compares well with other models in this price range (apparently).

Features

The A300 is very fast to turn on and is photo-ready in under a second.  As fast as I can put it up to my eye in actual fact.  The speed doesn't stop there.  Using a fast shutter, quite dramatic action shots can be taken of fast-moving subjects.  It will take up to 3 frames a second and will keep that burst going for as long as there is enough space on the SD memory card.  This speed comes at a price; there must be good light or the images will be dark.  Playing around with the ISO setting can remedy this but noise then becomes an issue.

There is an anti-shake system, dubbed the Super-Steady Shot system by Sony that evens out any small shakes or tremors especially noticeable on slower shutter speeds (the shutter is open for longer meaning the camera has to stay steady for a longer period of time).  This is built into the camera and works independently of the lens attached. Some lenses, particularly those at the costlier end of the market, have this built in but there is a switch to turn off the camera-built one.  The offset to this is the stabilising effect can't be seen through the viewfinder as it's a post-production effect.  Reading reports, it appears Super-Steady Shot is good up to 1/12th of second which sounds fast but is quite slow in shutter speed terms.



If the lens is removed, the interior of the camera is susceptible to minute dust particles.  Following on the lead of most other D-SLR camera manufacturers, Sony have provided an anti-dust mechanism that literally shakes dust particles off the sensor.  I've never had it off, the lens that is, but reading around on the 'net would indicate it works as well as any other.  I'll have to take their word for it.

Photo quality

It's worth pointing out I'm no photography expert nor do I have a vast range of different cameras to compare the output to.  I can say that I've been incredibly impressed with the photographs from the A300.  Colours are vivid and reproduction is as true to the original subject as I can remember them being.  Those 10.2 megapixels are sharp and clear and night-time pictures, particularly using a long shutter speed, appear with very little noise - a common complaint amongst compact camera owners. 

ISO-affected noise doesn't become noticeable until around the 1600 Mark and everyday shooting below that level is perfectly adequate.  It takes some serious zooming-in to find any discernible defects or for that matter, an end to the fine detail.

On the highest resolution, the image size can go up to around 4.5mb.

Consumables

The A300, like its other Sony counterparts, uses a proprietary Sony battery so replacements are likely to be expensive.  Expect to pay around the £30 - £40 mark.  Mine is still going strong after three years of use though.  A full battery charge will last for 2 'rolls' of film on a 4gb SD memory card.  That's roughly 800 photos.  This decreases considerably, by about half, if using the live-view finder.

The battery is underneath via a fiddly locking mechanism and located quite closely to the tripod connector.  It would have to be taken off the tripod to change the battery.  Using a quick-release tripod obviously makes this easier.

The manual is reasonable I guess.  It does assume a reasonable level of technical knowledge and for a camera aimed at someone wanting to take up photography as a hobby, I would have expected something a little less .. esoteric and more straightforward.  Of course, that could be just me.

My Experience

On full auto mode, the A300 works just like a normal compact camera and this is the mode I've had the most use out of.  It's more than adequate for everyday pictures.  I'm very much an inexperienced but enthusiastic hobbyist when it comes to photography and I tend to use the more advanced features only when necessary.  It's easy to use and providing you know what some of the terminology means, using those advanced features will be a doddle.

Messing around with shutter priority has been a lot of fun.  I've had spectacular results from a fireworks display I attended and action shots with the kids are a delight.  Being able to pick it up and take photos straight away is fantastic and it's easy to capture that perfect moment.  Using the bulb function means we've been to able to participate in a little light-drawing too.



On a tripod, that live display makes perfect sense.  No longer do I have to crouch down and look through the viewfinder, I don't even have to crouch to see the LCD - I can tilt it upwards to see it. 

It IS heavy, there's no getting round it.  Pointing it back at oneself for a self-portrait is precarious at best and carrying it around all day becomes tiresome.  The supplied strap is reasonable though chafing can occur if you're not careful.  It's just a shame there's nothing screams 'Tourist' more than a sheep-skin lined camera strap so I've denied myself that little luxury, for now at least.  Walking with it around the neck necessitates a hand to steady it's swaying inclination or else one's ribs become broken.

Conclusion

As a step-up from a compact camera, the Sony A300 more than fulfils its aims and it has enough features to satisfy a more-hardened photographer as well as being within reach of an interested beginner like myself.  The 10.2 megapixel count is admittedly lacking somewhat and even on its release it was never at the fore-front.  But then, at that price point, it was never intended to be.  However, the smaller pixel size does allow a slightly faster continuous burst of shooting than its more expensive sibling, the A350. 

The tilting LCD is more than just a gimmick and has genuinely proven useful.  As for the build quality, it passed my unintentional sturdiness test with flying colours.

I am really impressed by the A300 and after nearly two years of ownership, I'm not ready to upgrade it any time soon.  It has taken pictures worthy enough of being put onto canvas and even with a potentially damaging drop onto concrete, it has never skipped a beat.  The pictures are as good as I can expect and it has got some really useful features.  £420.00 is a major investment and my initial reason for purchasing this model was it had to have a lot of bang for the bucks.  I can safely say it's delivered plenty of bangs for the price and it's one I'm glad I made.


Unfortunately, the A300 is now discontinued but it can still be found with a little digging around.  Second-hand prices remain strong and expect to pay anything over £250.00 for a decent pre-owned one.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Motorcycle review: Honda Blackbird CBR1100xx

What is it?

The Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird is a motorcycle produced between 1996 and 2007.  When it was first released, its sole intention was to claim the crown of the World's fastest production and at just-shy of 180mph, it took the crown from the Kawasaki ZZR1100.  The first models were fitted with a carbureted normally-aspirated 1100cc engine but in 1999, Honda introduced a vastly updated version, the so-called PGM-1, that brought in fuel injection, ram-air and a host of other cosmetic and internal changes.  All the models had Honda's revolutionary but controversial linked braking system.

This is a review of a 1997, carbureted model.



My Blackbird, it's mine

They say time repeats itself and in the case of my motorcycling career, it most certainly did.  I remember my dad taking ownership of a brand new Honda CB1100R motorcycle in the early '80s.  It was white and red and gorgeous and with a top speed of 147mph, it was the fastest bike in the world at that time.  Dad passed away, I reached middle-age, time marched on and nearly 25 years later,  I took ownership of a (nearly) brand new Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird which, for a while at least, was the fastest bike in the world also.  Mine was black, gleaming, menacing and while the two bikes are poles apart in terms of technology and looks, there's a certain spirit that I felt had been passed down.

Dimensions and Looks

The Blackbird is a big old bike and at 223 kg's it's very imposing.  The mid-1990's saw a sea-change in the way motorcycle manufacturers improved the performance of their top-end models.    Prior to that they took the view of bigger engines + more BHP = faster bikes and bragging rights.  This is certainly true but the late '80's saw some stupid motorcycles being released including the '86 Suzuki GSX-R 1100 that paired a ridiculously strong engine with a chassis that just couldn't handle the power.  It was dubbed in some quarters the 'Widow-maker'.  This was true.  It was the motorcycle my dad was riding before the crash that led to his death.

Honda then released the Fireblade in 1994 to massive acclaim.  The engine was powerful but the chassis and weight of the bike had been paired down and now here was a bike that was fast but handleable.  The Blackbird was a nod back to the old school but with a modern application.  Its profile looks like an eagle about to eat some small defenseless animal and the large single cluster of lights I personally think looks mean and angry.  The seat is double meaning pillions don't feel they're perched on top, rather they fit into it like an armchair. 

It doesn't feel like 223kg when pushing around, although *you* try and pick it up if it falls over.  It's balanced beautifully and surprisingly nimble when wheeling in and out of the garage.  Even with a wheelbase of 1490mm (59 inches) (compared to the Fireblade's diddy 1400mm), it's easy to shuffle around.  I am 6'1 (and a bit, don't forget the 'bit') with long legs and can easily put my feet flat on the floor.  At 810mm, the seat height is slightly too much for my much shorter father-in-law (he's about 5'3 - 5'4) who has to stretch to touch the floor.  Tippy-toes is not a good thing to have on a bike like this.

At 720mm, it's also wide.  I had to widen the door on my shed to fit it in. 



Performance

With a reported 164bhp on tap and weighing only 223 kilos, the inline 4-cylinder engine brings a power-to-weight ratio around the 730 bhp-per-tonne mark.  This is similar to an *actual* Formula One racing car.  The raw figures don't really do it justice.  0-60mph takes less than 3 seconds, the quarter mile is achievable in 10 seconds and top speed is 180mph.  But there's much more to it than those figures and they are never real world anyway.  Despite that long wheelbase, it takes super-human control to nail the throttle in first gear (or second, or even third) and keep the front wheel on the ground.  Keep it nailed and you'll be on your arse in no time.

The revs climb to a respectable 10,750 rpm and at that kind of pressure, the Blackbird is ridiculously fast, scary almost.  However, the power delivery is smooth, refined and incredibly deceptive and that is one of the big selling points of the Blackbird.  Pick-up is instant in 6th gear from as low as 40mph and the top-gear roll-on is impressive thanks to the 78lbs of torque driving through the back wheel.  At motorway cruising speeds, the engine is barely being tickled at around 4,500 rpms.  It's almost like riding a big scooter but if you want it to, it can be a bit of a hooligan.

While the figures would indicate otherwise, in terms of current motorbike performance, the Blackbird is considered a distinguished gentleman.  Manufacturers, in their quest for the best performance, shave mere grams off the weight of their bikes and each year brings slight modifications to the engine output of the top sports bikes.  The Blackbird was something of a one-off in that regard as it was never massively modified or tweaked (the 1999 revamp notwithstanding) over the course of its production life.  It just never needed to. 

The Suzuki GSXR1300 Hayabusa would go on to trump it in the top-speed stakes, as did the Kawazaki ZX12-R a couple of years after that and no doubt as do a whole slew of modern-day super-sports pretenders today.  But they all lack that refinement, smoothness and deceptive power.  The ZX9-R for example, is as fast up to 150mph and is massively more raucous and loud but it just doesn't possess the same kind of on-the-road presence or smoothness of power delivery.

Handling and Comfort

Handling is probably the Blackbirds weakest area.  It was never a super-nimble track day bike and while it can just about keep up with the young whipper-snappers in a straight line, around the corners it lacks somewhat.  When the Blackbird was introduced to a salivating public in 1996, a new class of motorcycle was invented just to fit it in - Hypersports.  These are motorcycles designed to cross whole continents in as short a time as possible.  They're for the German Autobahn, not Donnington.

That long wheelbase means it's a little like turning an oil-tanker.  At 5mm longer than even the notoriously-long Hayabusa, it's not a bike to be flicked through a series of tight, twisty bends.  In the hands of a more accomplished rider, a lot could be achieved but against stiff opposition, it will always lose out. 

The Blackbird does come out on top in nearly every comparison test it is run through on one important characteristic - its comfort.  Having ridden many bikes (see my motorcycling career below), it's definitely been the most comfortable to ride of any bike I've owned or ridden.  The Honda VFR nearly broke my wrists after only 10 minutes of riding and I gave that back, the GPZ nearly crippled me after 17 hours straight of riding, the unfaired bikes I've ridden are a pain on the motorway.  The list goes on but the Blackbird is the only one where, after a marathon session, I've not had any major complaints regarding aches and pains in my body.

I've completed the Mencap National Rally four times now, three on the Blackbird.  The first year was on the Kawasaki GPZ500 and as mentioned, after 17 hours I was doubled up in agony from every quarter of my tortured torso.  It took me a week to recover.  Subsequent years on the 'Bird were an absolute pleasure and despite a low-ache in the bummage area, I suffered no drastic ill effects.  This bike does long distances very well and in the National Rally we completed close to a thousand miles at a time.  The riding position I found to be exceptional with the front fairing taking the brunt of the wind.  Even my wrists didn't feel too pressured - a common complaint on sports bikes and there is sufficient space behind the fairing for legs to be tucked in.

Honda's Combined Braking System (CBS) is where depressing the back brake level will also apply a certain amount of front braking as well (it's about an 80/20 split).  In normal, everyday riding, it is simply not an issue, end of.  It's only if you ride like a complete lunatic will you ever notice it and it's those types of rider who I find complain about it the most (even those who've never ridden a bike with CBS before have complained about it!).  And if you do ride like a complete lunatic, get off the road and go on a track.  You're giving bikers a bad name. 

I can say, the bike brakes well even with all that weight to come to a stop.  It's predictably progressive and feels strong with the three-pot callipers providing plenty of reassurance and confidence, especially in the wet.  The brakes feel much stronger than say, the ZX9-R with its piddly twin-pot.  Don't even get me started on the drum-braked Suzuki T500 with its rubber-mounted handlebars.  Scary.

Reliability and Running Costs

In the three years of ownership and 12,000 miles under the belt, nothing went wrong.  What can I say?  They are renowned for being reliable work-horses and as they attract the more 'mature' owner, they are generally very well looked after.  Reliability is never an issue and Blackbirds have been known to keep running well beyond 100,000 miles. 

Of course, there are consumables.  It will chew tyres and even with careful riding, expect to replace those rear 180/55r17's after 5,000 miles.  The chain has a propensity to stretch so keep on top of routine maintenance.  Bikers know this though.  More so than cars, I've not yet met a biker who isn't almost psychotically fanatical when it comes to the maintenance and care of their riding machine.  There's no room for error or lax maintenance and it can be a matter of life or death.   And I mean actual, real, death.  Really, you don't want a high-speed blow-out or snapped chain on a motorcycle. 

Economy-wise, I found it to be amazingly frugal, considering the size and performance of the engine.  On a reasonably slow run, 45mpg+ was easily achievable.  On the Mencap Rally, with my Father-in-law as a more sedate riding partner, I calculated it to be near 60mpg.  To achieve that required fast changing to top gear and bimbling along at the speed limit.  Even pushing hard would never really reduce it below 40mpg.  With those figures, the 23 litre tank is good for over 200 miles between fill-ups.  It even has a fuel-gauge, an absolute boon for a motorbike.

Insurance I found to be reasonable too.  Rated as group 16, fully comprehensive insurance came in at around £230.00 but that required a little shopping around I have to say.  That's for a (ahem) 35+ year old with an unblemished record and garaged overnight.  It's cheap because it's no longer considered a cutting-edge bike and therefore, less desirable.  That means a good deal for Blackbird owners.

Availability

Second-hand prices remain strong.  Expect to pay upwards of two grand for a decent pre-1999 model such as mine, more with low mileage and in an exceptional, standard condition.  Third-party exhausts are OK (make sure they have the original) but walk away if it's got a lot of blinging adornments such as anodised footpegs.  Check the crank case cover for scratches and the rear seat pod too.  Those areas tend to take the brunt of a careless drop in the car-park.  I paid £2800.00 in 2005 for an unblemished 1997 P-Reg with 18,000 miles on the clock and from a reliable source.

Conclusion

It all depends on what you want from a motorcycle.  I had four criteria when choosing the Blackbird; It had to be (i) comfortable, (ii) fast (of course), (iii) economical and (iv) cheap insurance.  On those points, the Blackbird fulfilled every one with ease.  As a best of everything, the CBR1100XX does an amazing job.  It may not be the fastest (any more), nor the most agile but within that sensible-looking package, it's stupidly powerful and will accelerate nearly as fast as gravity.  It's comfortable, reliable and still commands that all-important 'respect' factor at the bikers' meets.  Its looks haven't particularly dated and for the price, you're getting Formula One performance for the price of one of Lewis Hamiltons jock-straps.  To me, it's about as perfect a motorcycle as it can get.  My dad would have been proud.

About the Author

From those early formative years sat behind his dad as they rocketed down motorways and back roads, going to watch the racing at Donnington, to the coast for fish and chips and back again, it instilled in him a passion for bikes.  It wasn't until he took up off-roading in his twenties did he develop a hankering for a life on the open road.  Since then, his ownership history has included Yamaha's (DT175 2-stroke, XT350 single and XV125 parallel twin), Suzuki's (4-cylinder GT550, a mad, bad, dangerous and insanely fun 1972 T500 2-stroke), Honda's (CB100 single, CB500 parallel twin, CBR1100XX) and Kawasaki's (a scary mental KX250 2-stroke motor-cross bike, GPZ500 parallel twin and a ZX9R Ninja).  He's also had grateful opportunity to ride and test other bikes including R1's, ZXR's, Gixers, YZF's, Beemers, Bandits and just about everything in between except a Ducati (which he seriously wanted).

Also, the author killed his Blackbird and in the process, nearly killed himself.  At 70mph, while overtaking a car on a dual-carriageway, the car decided to pull out and Papa went into the back.  His mate, riding a Yamaha R1 behind, went into him.  They were both lucky.  Wearing full leathers prevented major damage and after waking up, Papa only suffered a broken arm, as well some massive bruising on the legs.  As the jacket wasn't zipped to the trousers, most of the skin from his lower back ended up on the road as well as from the hands thanks to some crappy gloves.  4ku-Papa says it hurt, it really f**king hurt.  His beloved Blackbird died a silent death on the side of the A616 Stocksbridge by-pass.  More scary, his mate was out cold for a good few minutes and there was genuine worry he was dead too.  The car driver left him and his mate lying in the middle of the road, never to be seen again.  Suffice to say, his biking days are finally over.



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How to eat a Jaffa Cake (Official Regulations)

As laid down by international law, eating a Jaffa Cake can be a highly contentious issue.  There are three recognised methods of consumption and while each has its own merits (and pitfalls), it's down to the consumer to choose which one they prefer.



1. The Chomp

This is the earliest known consumption method, as originally devised by the inventor of the Jaffa Cake, Mr Morton Price of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1927.  Now considered to be quite brutish, the chomp is nonetheless still an effective method for devouring that delicious orange, chocolate and sponge combination.

  • Place the Jaffa Cake firmly in gob.
  • Bite down with teeth and make a chewing motion.
  • Don't forget to swallow.

Good Points: It satisfies the immediate craving.
Bad Points: No finesse and exquisiteness is not savoured.

2. The Suck

This is a relatively new method, first seen in the 1962 Jaffa Cake World Cup held in Mexico City.  A certain Mrs Fanny Longstocking came up with 'The Suck' and several of the elderly female judges fainted.  The event went down in Jaffa Cake folklore and is now known as 'The '62 Incident'.  It's a shame as Mrs Longstocking was permanently banned and died only a few short years later, never to see the International Rules' Committee finally relent and allow 'The Suck' to be used in competition. 

  • Place the Jaffa Cake firmly in gob.
  • Suck.  Hard.
  • Keep sucking.
  • Savour the flavours of first chocolate, then orange and finally the sponge, as it breaks up into a lovely gooey mess.
  • Rules state the mouth must be clean.  Open wide and say 'Ahhhh'.

Good Points: A rich amalgamation of flavours.  Longevity.
Bad Points: Gets a bit messy.  Overtly sexual and can attract unwanted attention.

3. The Deconstruction

The Deconstruction was inaugurated into the Championships in 1932, partially as a response to a legal challenge made by a rival cake maker.  Since then, it has gone on to become the most skilled, dramatic and popular of all the events in the Jaffa Cake Consumption Calendar.  Who can forget the classic final of 1985 when over 150 billion people worldwide watched Tony 'Tiger' Titheed triumph over Timothy 'Terrible' Taylor in the strangely alliterative but thrilling final.  It went down to the last chomp, the closest in history.

A word of warning, no implements are allowed in 'The Deconstruction'.  The method must only be achieved through body parts only.  The 1986 Championships were marred by widespread cheating and the winner, Ms Jem Bohmson was stripped of her title afer a spoon was discovered up her sleeve.  Laughing Larry Arsebiscuit, in second place, was promoted to first only for HIM to have his title stripped after he was found in a janitor's cleaning cupboard, naked and surrounded by the crumbly remains of a packet of Chocolate Digestives.  Finally, after months of deliberation and several high-profile court cases, Herbert Stoolwater was declared the winner.  Which was a surprise to him as he hadn't officially entered the competition, wasn't at the venue, nor had he even heard of it.  You can't make this stuff up.

  • Remove the sponge, either with teeth, fingers or toes.  Place to one side.
  • Carefully peel away the orange segment and place next to chocolate.
  • The chocolate layer on top has to be complete or as near as possible.

Points are deducted for incomplete or broken components and the maximum is 100.  This is commonly thought to be impossible and the highest ratified total ever awarded in an official competition was an 89, as collected by Francis Von Shlurpyshlurpysheepsheep of Belgium in the Monaco Invitational Event of 1971. 

There's also a health warning attached to 'The Deconstruction' method as Ukranian entrant, Ivor Bollokov, found out to his cost in Madrid, 1983.  During the semi-finals and after a strong showing in the heats, Mr Bollokov was leading by a wide margin ahead of his main rival, Dr Peter Ness, when a freak shard of chocolate lodged in his eye.  For several minutes he was incapacitated and despite the best intentions of the paramedics on the scene, Bollokov had to retire.  He would return in '84 to claim back the crown from Dr Ness albeit wearing a pair of blue swimming goggles.  These are now mandatory in all events.

Good Points: Allows the cake to be enjoyed as nature intended.
Bad Points: Highly skillful, dangerous if incorrectly performed, time-consuming.

Controversy

There has been controversy by the International Rules Committee who have consistently disallowed the 'Double-Chomp'.  Some say that it is the only true method of eating Jaffa Cakes and while there is some merit in that argument, at this time, the IRC are steadfastly sticking to their guns.

However, for completeness, here are the rules for the 'Double-Chomp' as provided by a spokesperson for radical splinter group 'Double-Chomp Rules'.

  • Take 1 bite, leaving as close to 50% of the ORANGE segment only.
  • Chomp the remaining half.

Good Points: Technical chomping, good spread of cakeage.Bad Points: Not officially recognised due to inconsistency of orange segment to be centralized.

More Information

The Jaffa Cake World Championships are held every 2 years at different cities around the globe.  The 2011 champion is Dirk 'Diggling' Dangleberry, 42 of Surrey and has held the title for 3 years now, a record.  In between the championships are many other competitions, ranging from 1 star (beginners) to 5 star (professionals).  The World Championships is the only 6-star event.  Anyone can compete, providing they like Jaffa Cakes of course and there are numerous training centres around the country (known as 'Shops'). 


Go along, buy some Jaffa Cakes and enter.  You never know, one day you could be crowned Supreme Champion like Dirk Dangleberry or Sue Perdooper, the very first champion in 1928.  Go on, give it a go, you know you want to.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book review: Memorial Day by Vince Flynn

Synopsis

After capturing several high-ranking members of AL-Qaeda, Mitch Rapp discovers an audacious plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in Washington DC.



Opinion

Memorial Day, originally written in 2004, fortuitously predicts real-life events several years later.  Starting with a covert mission by counter-terrorist unit 'Orion Team' to capture and / or kill high-ranking Al-Qaeda operatives deep behind the Pakistani border, it could almost have been written about the mission for Bin Laden in 2011.  Chillingly, and hopefully where it diverges away from real-life, within the terrorists' compound the assault team discover plans to detonate a large nuclear bomb in the centre of Washington DC.  And so begins a race against time to stop a secret group of Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists from pressing the button before they can be found and no doubt, executed to within an inch of their lives.


Vince Flynn seems to have fallen into the common trap of an author writing himself as the lead character.  Mitch Rapp is who Vince Flynn wants to be had he taken up a life of assassinating people, covert black ops and the rapacious murder of terrorist prisoners.  Using key violent moments of the past twenty years to paint his characters with broad brush strokes, they come across as none-dimensional and wooden.  It's almost like reading the script for a Chuck Norris film (perhaps starring Karl Weathers as the bad guy).


The action and story moves along at a decently brisk pace and an intimate knowledge of equipment, weapons, procedures and political intrigue allows Flynn to bring to life violent set-pieces and momentous battles, as well as the paraphernalia surrounding a vast array of secret Government departments, special tactics' forces and everything else we're not supposed to know about.


It's Rapp who I have the biggest problem with.  You just know if you met the guy, you'd hate him.  Not because he operates on the edges of acceptable behaviour or he's the bestest, most highestly-trained assassin the whole wide World has ever seen like, EVER, but because he comes out with lines like: _"You don't want to know what I'm about to do"_ or _"Shut up and listen"_ to a room of the US's most senior movers and shakers (including the President).  Oh come on, give it a rest big fella, have a Pimms or something.  At least when Tom Clancy writes himself as Jack Ryan, there's an element of compassion and empathy.  Here, Rapp is just an amalgamation of every 'maverick' get-it-done cop / soldier / florist that's ever been committed to celulloid or the written word.  In every other sentence, Rapp admonishes the bureaucracy and political interfering from City Hall, I mean Washington, that threatens to derail his gun-slinging and terrorist torturing antics. 

Really, he's Dirty Harry for the noughty generation.  Whether Flynn intended for that to be the case is debatable but even so, Inspector Callaghan of the San Francisco Police Force had much more depth than his big gun and memorable one-liners allowed (as later Dirty Harry films would show).  Another character comparison would be Jack Bauer of 24, the flawed head of the CTU and that is the point, Bauer IS flawed and that's what makes him human.  Rapp is just too perfect a killing machine and hence, one-dimensional to make him believable. 

But then, something happens.  Surreptitously, the book draws you in, with its outlandish and over-the-top scenarios, Governmental intrigue and evil machinations from those religiously and stereotypically devoted to their murderous causes.  Forgetting that it reads like a Republican Party manifesto, it's entertaining in a ridiculous and overtly escapist way.  The book takes itself far too seriously and for that, it's almost deserving of ridicule but it's still a fun ride.  Rather like the waltzers at the local travelling fair, it's populated by the dodgiest geezers this side of a Brixton housing estate but still fun in a 'shriek if you want to go faster' kind of way.  I like that.



The denouement is undeniably thrilling and throughout the book, the pace never really slows down.  It moves from one action beat to another, increasing the tension, ramping up the ridiculousness but because it never quite hits the same unbelievably trite heights as a risible Dan Brown novel, it's more readable because of it.  I feel almost ashamed to admit I liked it, but I did, rather like the afore-mentioned Chuck Norris film.  It's not as cleverly convoluted as a Ludlum, nor will it stretch your intellectual capabilities like a Huxley, but it's a darn good read anyway.  Methinks, one for the holidays, sat on a beach, letting the world pass by.  Don't forget the suntan lotion.



Trivia: The details contained within Memorial Day were enough to prompt a security overview by the US Department of Energy.  Perhaps it's not as far-fetched as I originally thought then?

ISBN: 9780743453974
Publisher (paperback): Pocket Books.

Monday, August 22, 2011

IPad App Review: Super Stick Man Golf HD

Released Summer 2011, Super Stick Man Golf is a sequel to the entirely successful Stick Man Golf.  And as sequels go, it's pretty fantastic.  Essentially staying true to the original with the same easy control system but with improved graphics, more courses and now, power-ups, it's a big update.



All the courses from the original are there and while *most* of the tactics still work, Noodlecake have increased the sensitivity for the ball dropping into the hole.  No more can you blindly shoot at full speed and it will go in, care and attention to velocity is more apparent than before.  At first and after playing the first game to death, this was quite frustrating but it soon becomes second nature.  Thankfully, they have got rid of the wind on the 'hard' setting and instead have opted for more elaborate courses to compensate for a lack of choice in skill levels.

The power-ups I initially thought to be an unnecessary gimmick but they really do add an extra layer of gameplay.  Expect to see fire-balls (shoot stupidly long distances), sticky-balls (stick to walls) and amongst other stuff, the nitro-ball that essentially allows three shots to be performed in one go.  The latter is particularly essential in beating those all-important high-scores.  Speaking of which, GameCentre support is all present and correct which means you can compare your highs to those who are obviously cheating (somehow) from around the World.  You only get seven power-up shots to put in your 'bag' per round of golf so you can't just use them blithely on every hole and a little shot management is in order.

In addition to the original courses (or Classic Tour as they call it), there is also the Super-Tour (think, advanced) and Advanced Tour (think, super-advanced, super-hard).  The themes running throughout are eclectic and range from playing in trees to a space station to a rather beautiful autumnal course.  They are incredibly ridiculous (in a good way) and it takes some doing to get a gold star on all of them, over 250 in fact.



Multiplayer is probably the biggest addition to the series.  Now you can face off against anyone from around the World in a first-to-the-hole competition.  It's not perfect and finding a connection to a suitable host can take ages sometimes but playing against an online player is tense in a fun way.  The power-ups are divided equally so each player has the same opportunities.  I have found the games where the opposition is hosting the game to be a little one-sided - they seem to be able to get to their shot much faster and due to lag, those all-important milli-seconds add up to losing.  Of course, the opposite is also true so I suppose it balances out.  Multiplayer, along with GameCentre, add a massive dose of longevity that was perhaps missing from the first game.

The graphics have been given a marginal upgrade.  By that I mean they look a little more crisp, a little more depth of vision but they're still undeniably the same game.  That's not a criticism, just an observation.  Stability is good and I've had no crashes at all.  Apparently version 1.6 from July 2011 onwards solves a problem with unlocking with the Nitro-ball but it's not something I have come across. 

Overall, an excellent addition to the series and a worthy update, even if you have the original.  At a stupidly low price of 69 pence, it's a crime not to try it out.

Movie Review: Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call (2009)

Synopsis

Taking its cue from the 1992 Harvey Keitel vehicle of the same name (except the 'Port of Call' bit), this reboot stars Nicholas Cage and Eva Mendes and while maintaining the same sense of descent into madness, it's an altogether different film.

Lieutenant Terence McDonagh of the New Orleans Police Department is addicted to painkillers for a debilitating back condition and this invokes a rapid free-fall into a drug-fuelled frenzy of career-wrecking proportions while investigating a multiple homicide.


The Film

Set in the year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, McDonagh and partner Stevie Pruit (played by a very hirsute and plump Val Kilmer), are investigating the execution of a family of 5 in an apparent drug war turf battle.  Already addicted to Cocaine, McDonagh sees this opportunity to not only solve the crime, but to fuel his enormously rapacious appetite for drugs due to the nature of low-life scum he has to deal with.  Lurching dangerously from one vile criminal to the next, McDonagh is never far away from the opportunity to screw someone over.

It's an interesting premise for a film but there are some glaring faults and some not so obvious.  For one, the aftermath of the hurricane is merely a footnote and already New Orleans is shown to be back on it's feet.  This is a complete misnomer and as history tells us, it would take much longer than the six months suggested by the film for it to be in such a state of normality.  Indeed, the widespread flooding only serves as a plot device to explain McDonaghs painful back condition.

Cages depiction is all wild-eyed laughter, drug-fuelled sleep deprivation and manic behaviour.  Along with his gambling addiction, this probably rings most true to the original but where Keitel's Lieutenant was seeking some kind of absolution, the script here sees the lunacy as a means to an end.  The tart with a heart is played by Eva Mendes, too pretty and innocent to be a prosser but that's possibly the reason behind McDonaghs fascination with her, a counterpoint of light in the dark depraved world he normally inhabits.

No doubt dividing opinion once again, Nicholas Cage brings an atypical over-the-top performance, complete with bad hair syrup.  As McDonagh, he's cast well and director Herzog plays to his frenzied strengths.  Afflicted by a permanent hunch and sloping shoulder, the pain that brings on his madness is shared by the audience.  But, despite this pain and anguish, the script never allows him to strike a sympathetic chord due to his entirely unsympathetic behaviour.  Witness one extraordinarily distasteful scene where he forces a quite ordinary couple to smoke crack while he humps the girl.

There are some outstanding moments.  One where McDonagh loses it with the Grandmother of a vital witness makes for uncomfortable but riveting viewing none-the-less.  Cutting off the air supply to an elderly, oxygenated woman to garner some information before threatening her with a gun and calling her some pretty crude names was unpleasant but showed the depths McDonagh had plumbed to.

The rest of the cast brings up some pretty interesting actors with the always excellent Brad Dourif, the aforementioned Val Kilmer (he's huge, did he really once play a svelte and slinky Jim Morrison?), even Stifflers mom cropping up in a grungy, greasy-haired role.  But its Cage's film and all of them pale in comparison to his colourful histrionics, which is a shame because as an ensemble they should add up to more than the whole.

There are some bizarre Hunter S. Thompson-esque moments, no doubt reflecting McDonaghs increasingly erratic behaviour.  A preoccupation with lizards that's never fully explained, an utterly off-the-wall break-dancing soul as its owner dies under a hail of bullets and a crocodiles eye-view of a car-crash scene (literally).  Knowing Herzog's background, it should have come as no surprise to find such moments of eclecticity but at least they are rare shards of light relief, as head-scratching and puzzling as they are.

The movie appears to have suffered from some quite drastic editing to fit it in to a barely manageable 122 minutes.  The ending is resolved in an unsatisfactory two minute segment that left this viewer cold and given more leeway, one can't help feeling the director wouldn't have bowed to some kind of focus-group pressure.

Conclusion

For all its bluster, Bad Lieutenant blows too cold and all the elements don't add up to the sum of its parts.  Cage will either dazzle or annoy but either way, his performance is let down by a script that tries to be outlandish but falls short of the mark.  The film has said very little by the time the end credits are rolling and for such a raw subject, that is its biggest fault.

Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 18 for scenes of violence, sexual or otherwise and extremely crude offensive language.
Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit (the rapper).

Board Game Review: The Palace Extension

What is it?

The Palace is an expansion set to the original Revolution! board game by Steve Jackson Games.


What's so good about it?

One of the main criticisms of the original Revolution! board game was the number of players - it could only be played by 3 or 4 people.  The Palace Expansion Set provides rules and counters for another 2, bringing the total up to a very sociable 6 players.  Due to the 'closed-bid' nature of the game, it can never work with less than 3 players, a problem not exclusive to Revolution! by any means.  This expansion also adds more options available to the player when bidding.

What's in the box?

A gameboard piece designed to fit over the redundant space in the middle of the original board.  Enough counters for a couple of extra players as well as 2 more screens.  6 new player boards as there are more spaces to place bids / bribes.  50 cubes (25 of each new colour).  A scant 2-page rulesheet.  The components, as per all Steve Jackson Games erm, games, are excellent.  The artwork, by Ben Williams is top-notch and everything is printed on thick card-stock meaning they will stand up well to repeated play.

How does it all work?

Revolution! is a game where players bribe certain members of a city in an attempt to increase their overall influence of said city.  Influence is represented by small, coloured wooden cubes.  For example, successfully bribing the Priest allows a player to influence the Cathedral, bribing the Captain allows influence to spread into the Harbour area and so on.  Each area of the city is worth a different amount of support 'points', awarded at the end of the game, depending on how many 'squares' of influence it has.

Be careful though, the bidding system is on a sliding scale and there are three methods of bribing.  Gold is beaten by blackmail which in turn is beaten by force.  Some members of the city can only be blackmailed (and won't be swayed by force) while others can only be forced and won't submit to blackmail.  Then there are 'rogue' elements such as Spies and Apothecaries that allow influence cubes to be moved around the board and/or swapped with other players'.  Bribing is achieved by the use of tokens which are granted by certain members and each turn brings a new and different set of tokens to assign.

The new gameboard piece of this expansion set represents the titular Palace and fits quite snugly over the old fountain graphic (that didn't do anything) in the centre of the original board.  The new player bid boards add an extra 4 options available when bidding.  These are:

Viceroy: Give them gold, blackmail or force your way into the Palace.  The Viceroy will also grant you access to the Guardhouse that stops you being affected by the actions of Spies or Apothecaries.

Messenger: Allows a player to reassign up to 2 of their influence cubes elsewhere on blank squares.  Messengers can be bribed with gold, blackmail or force. 

Mayor: Only responding to gold, the Mayor allows you to place an influence cube in any blank square.

Constable: Possibly the most straightforward of the new playing options as buying a Constable with gold grants you 5 support points and a blackmail token for the next turn.

What's it like to play?

It sounds complicated but really, it's a very straightforward and easy game to play.  The extra rules are printed on the bid boards so there's none of the dreaded 'rulelookupiteus'.  There are hints also on the inside of the players' screens.  We found with extra players, there are more cancelled bids.  A cancelled bid happens when the same amount is bid by two players on the same square.  Obviously this increases the playing time.  With fewer players, the reverse happens as there are more options to choose from and hence less opportunity to queer another players pitch.  We can happily fit in a four player game inside a lunch hour, for example.

Strategically, the new bid options range from subtle to almost match-winning.  The new Palace building is hard to fill but is worth 55 points at the end of the game - the biggest building in the game.  The GuardHouse is also worth fighting for as it protects your existing influence cubes from the Spy and Apothecary and becomes very useful in the latter stages.  The Messenger and the Mayor are more subtle, allowing your own influence cubes to be placed in other areas.  These can be used to either strengthen the hold over a building or to surreptitously move into one held by another player.  Used together, they form a powerful alliance and can instigate a three-cube swing in any one area.  The Mayor is also useful in forcing the end of the game by allowing the last remaining influence squares to be taken up. 

The Constable is perhaps the least effective, simply being there as a means of gaining an extra blackmail token for the next turn.  Our fears of too many blackmail tokens in play thus making the game imbalanced were ungrounded.  In fact, the game seems to have become more evenly balanced.  While my mate Tim *always* wins (he does look like Jesus so I reckon there's a bit of divine intervention going on), the scrap for second place is much closer.  As with any Euro-style game, the true winner is not determined until the final points tally.

Conclusion


For an RRP of £19.99, it's quite an expensive add-on for not a huge amount of components and with the original game at only £29.99, it's value is in question.  I can't help feeling this expansion set is the game that Steve Jackson wanted to release initially.  The ability to have up to 6 players is not something we have not had call to use on too many occasions.  Hardly ever, in fact.  A couple of evening meetings of our board game club and that's it. 

But, the new rules *are* fun to play, are easy to pick up and *do* add an extra dimension to an already-interesting game.  With a much more regular 4 players, games seem more balanced and while Tim still wins, he's never massively in the lead as he seemed to with the original. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Poem: The Daily Commute

With bleary eyes and darkened skies,
I turn to look outside.
I have a yawn, on this early morn,
Can't find my shirt or tie.

Fight the urge, and waking surge,
To get back into bed.
Don't leave you say, warm duvet
Have a cold shower instead.

Trudge to the car, it's not that far,
Nearby railway station.
Cold waiting room, train comes soon,
Always same destination.

I climb aboard, now quite bored,
Stomach starts to rumble.
Try to sleep, slumber creep,
Concious starts to crumble.

Another train, same seat again,
Noisy man on phone.
Fast countryside, flying by,
Feeling quite alone.

Try not to snore, like I did before,
Annoying all those people.
Town into view, outside brick loo,
Towering cathedral steeple.

Surly man in a business suit,
Arrogance all over his face.
Swigging lad, scowl so bad,
Tripping over undone lace.

Hard pavement stone, walk alone,
IPod on full blast.
Open the door, work once more,
Concentrate on the task.

Boring tone, so I think of home,
Lovely warm smiling wife.
Fight back a snooze, try to read the news,
Must be more to life.

Lunch comes round, something brown,
I'd rather eat my shoe.
Try to work some more, it's all a bore,
I don't know what to do.

Same train home, broke mobile phone,
At least the day is done.
Can't find a seat, I can't retreat,
But I see the setting sun.

Open the door, to my home once more,
Fall into welcome arms.
You stroke my face, heart gains a pace,
keep me safe from harm.

You smile at me, and I can see,
Why I make the trip.
To have a life, with so much strife,
So I can kiss your lips.

The meals we cook, or to read a book
We lay down together.
Keep plugging away, same thing every day,
But with you, it's always heaven.