Moving to a Mac

Recently, after a sustained bout of swearing at my laptop, which I’d had for a good few years and which thus owed me nothing, I decided to replace it with a shiny new one. Something speedy and modern, I thought, but not too expensive. So, a trip to the shops was duly organised and I spent some considerable time comparing features and realising how little I wanted Windows 8 anywhere near me in case I caught something horrible from it. After a good deal of umming and ahhing (and shaking my head at appallingly low screen resolutions) it became apparent that I was going to have to bite the financial bullet and buy a decent machine rather than a cheapie. Once that decision was made it wasn’t too hard to pick the right machine – a 15 inch MacBook Pro.

The first thing to say is that the Retina display, running at a huge resolution of 2880 x 1800 pixels, is stunningly beautiful. Really, simply gorgeous. After only a couple of days’ use I couldn’t possibly use anything of a lesser quality. The monitors I use at work now appear decidedly ugly. The second thing is that, due to the 256GB SSD (solid state disk) and lack of a fan (as far as I can tell) the machine is utterly silent. You really notice the difference when whatever music you were playing to amuse yourself while you worked finishes.

On top of all this, the whole device is thin, beautifully simply designed and just feels right. The casing feels solid and the only vents are positioned in such a way that you don’t block them if you use the computer on your lap. Nor does it get too hot, so your thighs remain unburned and, if you’re male, your ability to procreate remains as it was. Even plugging the power supply in is a joy – it attaches with a satisfying magnetic click and a small LED on the plug (the laptop end, not the mains) indicates when the laptop is fully charged.

As for OSX, I’d used it before but not very much, but it hasn’t taken long to get comfortable with it. It’s essentially a flavour of UNIX, as was the Ubuntu Linux I was using on my old machine, but much, much prettier. No great surprises, just solid, easy to use and attractive, which seems to be the Apple way. I’ve never been a rabid Apple maniac and I’m still not, but I can see why some people are.

God Collar

I’ve just read God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke. It’s about his struggle with the concept of God, in particular the God of the Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I’ve always liked Mr. Brigstocke and have enjoyed his appearances on the Now Show, Argumental and QI, to name a few. I think he’s funny, clever and, as much as any of us are, pretty sensible.

The book, unsurprisingly perhaps, utilises quite a few personal anecdotes, as well as quite long passages about his wife and children and his friend James, to whom the book is dedicated. The passages about how much he loves his kids and how wonderful he thinks they are really made me want to have some of my own. This is a man who really appreciates what’s important in life and is lucky to have found it.

There’s also a very interesting section about his early years, and how miserable he was. I can certainly relate to this, having struggled with depression and anxiety since I was very young.

All the above makes the book sound more like an autobiography, which it most certainly is not. The author merely uses some details from his life to illustrate points about what sort of God he would like there to be and what sort of God it seems many people actually believe in. I’ve wrestled with much the same difficulties and, again, felt a strong empathy towards Marcus Brigstocke.

All in all, a very funny, intelligent book and well worth reading, whether you believe in a God of some sort or not, or whether you’re undecided. Honest, charming and very hard to put down.

The Last Unicorn

I’ve just finished reading The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, as recommended by Juliet. I confess that I was a little sceptical about how good a book about a unicorn was likely to be. I was wrong – it’s absolutely delightful. The style reminds me a little of Japanese folk tales: beautiful, somewhat sparse and often a little odd but always charming, entertaining and an absolute joy to read.

The story itself sounds like fairly standard fare (a unicorn sets out to discover what became of all the other unicorns and picks up companions and adventures along the way) but there’s much more to it than that. There’s real beauty here, both in the prose and in the ideas and characters.

I haven’t yet seen the animated film of the book but I’m going to try to do so. In the meantime, I recommend this very highly indeed.

Unseen Academicals

This morning I finished Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett, having started it only a couple of days previously. It says something about how enjoyable this book was that I read it so quickly; it was just too good to put down.

This book is the usual blend of characters from Ankh-Morpork: the wizards of Unseen University, Lord Vetinari etc. – even a quick cameo from Death, my favourite. It also introduces some new ones, in particular Mister Nutt, a person of surprising ability given his lowly position as a candle dribbler at the University. This story revolves around football (that’s soccer to you Americans) and, while I have no interest at all in the game, that didn’t matter as what the book’s really about is people and a chance for Mr. Pratchett to philosophise once again.

If you like the other Discworld books, you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you haven’t tried any yet I think this would be a poor place to start as the assumption is that the reader is reasonably familiar with the location and major characters already.

Screen Burn

I’ve just finished reading Screen Burn by Charlie Brooker, which was a Christmas present from my lovely girlfriend. It’s a collection of Mr. Brooker’s TV columns in the Guardian from 2000 to 2004. If you’ve not encountered him before, he’s a deeply misanthropic but very funny writer with a penchant for trashy TV and a fine taste in comedians (he likes Jerry Sadowitz, in other words).

In many ways the book is a trip down memory lane, packed as it is with rants about series and one-off programmes that I, at least, had completely forgotten about. If you enjoy reviews where the critic concerned positively foams at the mouth but in a very witty way then, apart from also checking out Mark Kermode’s film reviews, you should definitely read this.

Inside Man

Last night I watched Inside Man, starring Denzel Washington as a police detective who’s pitted against a bank robber played by Clive Owen. At first, the robbery seems straightforward, if clever, but as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that much more is going on than meets the eye. With good support from the likes of Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer and Willem Dafoe, the tale develops at a good pace and in interesting directions. Spike Lee’s directing keeps things taut and exciting and shows New York City off nicely.

This is one I’d definitely spend good money on, having rented it, since I think it will only improve with further viewings. Recommended.


Last night I watched the first, um, episode, of Episodes, a new sit-com on Channel 4, starring Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as a pair of comedy writers and Matt LeBlanc as, apparently, the star of the US version of a hit UK TV comedy supposedly written by them. I say ‘apparently’ because he only put in an appearance at the very start of the show, being involved in a car accident with Greig’s character, the rest of the programme being a flashback.

I have to say that I expected more from this cast. The gags, especially a piece of shtick with the security guard at a gated community in Beverly Hills, fell pretty flat and I didn’t smile once, let alone laugh. However, it’s really hard to do much with some stories until you’ve set the scene and established the characters, so I shall reserve full judgement until I’ve seen a bit more. I hated Only Fools and Horses at first, and look how good that got in its heyday. Maybe I’ll write a bit more once we’re well into the series.


Last night I watched Next, a film starring Nicolas Cage as a man who can see into his own future. The catch is that he can usually only see two minutes ahead, which is enough to allow him to run his own magic act and make a little money in the casino, as well as avoiding a certain amount of trouble, but not enough to allow for really big stuff.

The plot revolves around the search for a stolen nuclear device, and a government agent’s attempts to involve our hero in tracking it down and preventing a disaster. All Cage’s character really wants, however, is to pursue the girl of his dreams. The film is based on a story by Philip K. Dick, a science-fiction author of some note, and largely stands up well. I particularly liked the surprise ending, even though it left the story hanging a bit. I felt that the bad guys weren’t really sinister enough, and were completely one-dimensional, but they’re really almost incidental to the plot.

On the whole, then, a thoroughly entertaining movie, and well worth renting. I’d buy it if it was suitably cheap (as it is at Amazon right now) but not at full price.

Bill Bailey – Dandelion Mind

For Xmas my lovely girlfriend Juliet bought me Screen Burn by Charlie Brooker (review to follow, once I’ve actually read it) and Dandelion Mind by Bill Bailey, who I’m very fond of.

The DVD is of the quality we’ve come to expect from Bill Bailey, with the usual verbal nonsense interspersed with musical items utilising a large variety of instruments, both ancient and  modern, notably the oud, a middle-eastern instrument similar in appearance to the lute. I won’t spoil your fun by listing all the musical treats on the DVD, but I will say that we’re treated to the usual blending of genres. If you really must know, I’m sure you’ll find clips on YouTube. Personally, I’d just buy the DVD and enjoy the experience on a proper-sized screen.

If I had to level any criticism of the show at all, it would have to be that it’s way too short. This is not to say that you don’t get your money’s worth – you most certainly do – but only that however long the thing is, it’s not enough.

Sherlock Holmes

I’m currently reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which I got as an ebook from Amazon, and I have to say that although I’m only halfway through I can already highly recommend it. I expected it to be fairly tough going for some reason, probably because of the era in which it was written, but it’s actually a really easy read and thoroughly compelling.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle manages to bring the characters of Holmes and his sidekick Watson out beautifully, even though he tends to avoid long descriptive passages. Perhaps that’s because we’re fed little titbits of information in each story, or perhaps it’s simply that the characters are so well-known that we already have a good idea of who they are before we even pick up the book.

I confess that a part of me was dreading reading The Hound of the Baskervilles, simply because I’d seen the screen adaptations and somehow doubted that the book would live up to them. Odd, because I almost always prefer the book to the film when it comes to stories. However, I’m delighted to be able to say that the book is, as it should be, much better than any movie or TV version. Read it for yourself and you’ll see.

All in all, I’m thoroughly enjoying the book and would very happily recommend it to anybody.

Camden Coffee House

For a little while now I’ve been trying to find a good place to go at lunchtime to have a coffee and read. Today’s candidate is the Camden Coffee House. The website looked promising but I have to say that I’m somewhat disappointed. It’s so small that there’s nowhere to sit at a table and I’m forced to type this while sitting on a very uncomfortable bar stool.

I have a full-length coat, so somewhere to hang it would have been appreciated. The staff seemed friendly enough but they told me to take a seat and they’d bring my drink over to me, which they then failed to do.

The drink itself was fine, but it’s quite hard to ruin a hot chocolate. Maybe I should come back and try a tea or coffee. So far, though, I don’t think this is the place for me.

Update 14/12/10: I went back today and was much better pleased. The new coat rack was in place and very useful, my coffee was brought to my table and I was generally much more comfortable and happy.

Gareth Goes to Glyndebourne

I watched the first episode of Gareth Malone‘s latest exploits on BBC2 last night. In Gareth Goes to Glyndebourne, the ever-charming and delightfully enthusiastic Gareth follows the now-familiar pattern of taking a bunch of ordinary working-class kids and introducing them to a whole new world of music and singing, in this case by getting them to perform in a specially written opera at the world-renowned Glyndebourne opera house.

Yes, we’ve seen similar stuff before, and in the hands of almost anyone else it’d be quite boring by now, but somehow Gareth Malone manages to keep our interest. A great deal of this has to be due to his infectious passion for singing and his refusal to give up in the face of the kids’ initial indifference. It really is lovely to watch, despite a certain predictability. I’ll be glued to the remaining two episodes and to whatever Mr. Malone comes up with next.

Roomba 505

Roomba 505I recently took delivery of an iRobot Roomba 505 robot vacuum cleaner. It’s the most basic model in the range, coming in at 1p shy of £200, which I grant is a lot of money for a vacuum cleaner. Having said that, it’s cheaper than a Dyson.

In the box were the Roomba itself, a mains charger, a spare filter and a brush cleaner. The higher-end models come with a base station, to which the robot will return automatically for charging. Some models also include scheduling, but while I’d have liked that I just couldn’t justify the additional expense.

After a couple of hours’ charging the Roomba, which I have named Wanda, was ready to go. Cleaning the floor is a simple matter of placing the cleaner in the middle of the room, switching it on and pressing the big, glowing ‘Clean’ button in the centre of the device, at which point it plays a few notes and starts to move. I was initially impressed by how quiet it is, although I still needed to turn the TV up a bit. Ordinarily, of course, you’d set the Roomba off when you go out, so this isn’t an issue. As well as the brushes on the underside of the machine, there’s a rotating brush which protrudes from the side and does a good job of cleaning right up to the wall.

Initially, the Roomba moves in an outward spiral but this quickly changes to seemingly random motion. I noted a few spots on the floor and was pleased that the Roomba covered them all at some point. Obstacle avoidance is also very good; as the machine approaches table legs, walls and other fixed objects it slows down and gently bumps against them, ensuring that it cleans right up to them.

Roomba 505 with bin removedOnce the Roomba judges that it has cleaned everywhere it switches itself off, ready for emptying and recharging. The bagless design is good and the bin, although not huge, is large enough (especially as you’ll be vacuuming more often). It’s easily removed and emptied, important in an appliance whose entire purpose is to save labour. Although it takes longer to clean a room than you would, the whole point is that you don’t have to do it at all.

Overall I’m very impressed and pleased with my Roomba and would happily recommend it to anyone, especially those who live in single-floor accommodation since the one place it can’t clean is stairs. The sheer pleasure involved in coming home to a freshly-vacuumed home can’t be overstated.