Light up my life

To celebrate some exam success this week, I was whisked off to the Apple store to purchase some Beats goodies – bluetooth in-ear headphones, and their mini portable speaker, the Beats Pill. Both are a lot of fun, however it was an impromptu off-the-shelf purchase that has turned out to be the real revelation. I’m always keen on gadgets that make photography more accessible. In this day and age of leaving the house with powerful photographic equipment tucked in your pocket, adding peripherals can make things even better. One of my key criteria though, is that they shouldn’t make you and your camera any less portable.

Nova have absolutely nailed it with their nifty little flash, what they are calling the “first bluetooth flash for iPhone.”

It doesn’t look like much when you take it out the box – a slightly larger than credit card sized, slim piece of plastic with no buttons and just one port for charging. But give it that charge and then take a photo to see the light brighter than a thousand suns.

beats-before-and-after

As Mr C said at the time, it’s all very well taking a picture of your awesome new Beats, but at some point it starts to look like you’ve just stolen a product shot from a Google search.

The device works via the Nova app, where you can adjust the LED settings for warmth and colour, or pick a pre-set. It wants to be like a camera flash, so snaps on and off in the blink of an eye, but I’d prefer the option to switch it on and off at my leisure. There’s a test button to check your lighting conditions, and simply holding that down does the job, but a toggle would be a nice addition.

Otherwise, there are no complaints. How such light can come from such a small device, and how much difference it can make to a single photo is absolutely incredible.

It’s a Grand Place, Brussels

Grand-Place, Brussels

I was allowed to lift my head from my study books for two weeks recently, to head to Belgium for a fortnight work trip. It was crazy busy and there wasn’t a lot of time to be a tourist, but I did manage to snap a couple of pictures in Brussels.

Shopping Mall

It’s a lovely place, full of juxtapositions of old and new, and a big mish-mash of languages. I wish I could have had more time to spend nosing around, but had to settle for just a few glimpses of the sights.

I did get to have a waffle, though, so no major complaints. There are a couple more pictures up on Flickr, but now I have to head back to the books!

Every Tom Hanks movie

Just like many people, I’ve been curious how James Corden would get on in the wild world of late night US talk shows. You’ll have noticed my obsession with Jimmy Fallon, I’m sure, and the concept of these daily evening entertainment extravaganzas fascinates me.

By all accounts, he did okay and there’s at least something to work with. From the clips I’ve seen, it’s a good start but I just have one question. Why would you ever put Tom Hanks in your first show because how are you ever going to top this??

A good fit?

Since writing about my desire to chronicle the connected life I’ve done a lot of playing around with gadgets but not so much reporting of my findings. One of the health and fitness gadgets I’ve been less keen on trying is the Fitbit fitness band, partly because it just doesn’t appeal to me and partly because of their refusal to embrace Apple’s HealthKit concept.

(For those who missed it, HealthKit syncs all data from health apps to graph your progress in one handy place. Fitbit refused to be included, and Apple took their gadgets out of the online and retail stores.)

I can understand why some are turned off my Apple’s all encompassing closed garden nature, but particularly with regards to HealthKit, it’s not a particularly demanding exclusivity deal. You give data, you can read data back, the user gets better control. So, all refusing to join does is alienate a subset of customers that might otherwise want to use the products.

Anyway, regardless, the news that Fitbit bought out workout app Fitstar was met by me with something of a howl. I have been in love with Fitstar for more than a year, and it’s one of the few fitness ventures I’ve tried that has stuck. (Running stuck but then it injured me.)

Both Fitstar and Fitbit claim that nothing major will change upon this acquisition, but it always does, doesn’t it? Fitstar’s email announcement included the worrying phrase: “The FitStar you know and love is not going away – in fact, it’s only going to get better with our friends at Fitbit.”

The most pressing improvements for them are a move to expand the app outside of Apple’s infrastructure. That’s understandable given Fitbit’s clear distaste for the system. But this worries me on two levels.

1) If they’re busy updating the app for others, will the current version just stagnate? It being available on Windows phone doesn’t make any difference to me. The age old question of new users over loyal customers comes to the fore here.
2) Will their expansion stop at simply inclusion? Fitbit don’t play well with others. Fitstar previously did work with HealthKit and connected to several other apps to share data. I am guessing it won’t sync with HealthKit in future, and other devices/apps may face a similar fate.

It’s easy to over-react when the news of a purchase comes along but more often than not, bad things happen to the apps I like that get bought out.

The news is even more irritating for its poor timing. Apple are set to update their software with fixes for the buggy HealthKit app that should make it usable. It’s been hit and miss since the introduction but the concept is a good one and I hope it can get more stable to increase the bigger picture view of my health. Whether Fitstar will still be a part of that vista remains to be seen.

One unit, two unit, three unit, four

Life is, predictably, very busy at the moment and instead of flailing around as I make my way through a day, I’ve had to start thinking in the morning: “This is what I have to achieve today, how will I fit it in?”

That means a bit of forward planning, which in turn means that Hugh Grant was right all along with his system, highlighted in About a Boy.

I find the key is to think of a day as units of time, each unit consisting of no more than thirty minutes. Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching countdown: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully disheveled: four units. It’s amazing how the day fills up, and I often wonder, to be absolutely honest, if I’d ever have time for a job; how do people cram them in?

Digital magazines aren’t the solution… yet

apple-newsstandI so wanted Newsstand to be the answer. The concept is perfect: digital copies of magazines delivered to my device without me having to a) leave the house/rely on the postal service or b) find space for physical paper.

Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. I started my digital magazine explorations with Zinio, and then moved on to Newsstand when Apple kicked off their version of digital newspaper and magazines. Both do very similar things, allowing you to subscribe to a magazine, or download individual editions, read them on your device and then continue to access them later.

For Newsstand, it feels like it should be a simple process, but everything about it is clunky and uncomfortable. First you subscribe to the magazine itself, just as a title, an entity. The cover appears in your Newsstand and you can go in and out of various titles there – each opening up its own separate app. That’s a pain, because I’m always ending up with heaps of apps open without realising what I’m actually doing. Navigation on Newsstand is not fun.

Then you have downloading (slow), storage (filesizes are huge), management (am I subscribed? do I keep old editions?) and more important than any of the other things: usability. I’ve stumbled across maybe two or three magazines that have made the effort and designed a tablet friendly edition, with moving parts, legible text and good navigation. Total Film is a good example, as it embeds trailers, has covers that move, load and link, and reviews that are scrollable in a variety of interesting ways.

That’s the exception to the rule, though. For the most part, digital magazines tend to be replica copies of their print counterparts, which involves things not fitting on the screen correctly, split page concepts not working at all, and tiny text that requires a lot of zooming in and out as you attempt to read.

As fanatical as we are in my house to rid ourselves of physical things and live in binary wherever possible, magazines are the one thing that has so far beaten us. Physical copies have been creeping back in “because it’s just easier.” It’s frustrating, not because paper is particularly bad, but because the solution is almost there. Almost. But it’s just not ready yet.

A fond farewell to a trio of sitcoms

Browsing through the BBC iPlayer, I saw that the final episode of Miranda that aired over Christmas was about to time out. It reminded me that three of my fondly admired sitcoms came to their conclusion this festive period, and surprisingly, all three went out in style. It may be that LOST burned me and that I hold a grudge for too long, but it feels like most TV shows captivate their audiences and then end in disappointment. Not these three!

Miranda

As mentioned, Miranda bowed out with two episodes, separated by a week, telling the story of whether our hero picked from one of the two proposals she had received at the end of the third series. On the face of it, that should be an easy story to tell but Miranda is never that simple.

She picked one, she lost them, she tried to move on, she found them again. A happy ending all round. I thought some of the action was a bit frantic, lots of yelling from our main characters, rushing this way and that, and a huge amount of plot squeezed in. And whilst I whole-heartedly agreed with Miranda’s speech at the intervention, it did feel a bit shoe-horned in.

I’ve also realised that women like me can be sexy, it’s just the world might never affirm it so it just takes us a little longer to realise it.

Regardless, a top notch ending to what was a fabulous series. Miranda the show was always the kind you either loved or hated, and thankfully I loved it. I think it ended at exactly the right time, and in almost exactly the right way.

Cabin Pressure

Although it was always kind of obvious, the fact that John Finnemore’s radio sitcom came to its conclusion after 26(ish) episodes made me very sad. With each show featuring a destination starting with the next letter in the alphabet, it’s understandable that Z heralds the end. But it was such a good show, it really was painful to hear the final two-parter.

Not painful because it was bad, at all, but because these characters have really grown on me over the past year or so. I’ve re-listened to the show a couple of times over and really enjoy the journey they all go on.

Herc: Would you care to guess how many of my four wives and – as you are right to imagine – countless girlfriends have had white hair? I’ll give you a clue: it’s none. A preponderance of brunettes, some blondes, the odd redhead, but you are absolutely the first whitehead.

Carolyn: What a novel way you’ve chosen to end our relationship.

I’ve talked before about loving the show, so I won’t repeat myself. The only thing to add is that it was a great end to the series, and John’s blog post explaining his thought process behind the finale was an additional bonus that helped make it even more special.

Not Going Out

As far as I know, Not Going Out hasn’t officially ended, not in the way the other two have. But I do know that Lee Mack said he wanted to take a break, that writing the show took up such a large amount of time, he wanted to see what else life had to offer. Given the nature of the story and how it wound everything up, it seems likely it is the end, and it was probably the right time.

Not Going Out was one of the funniest things on TV. It’s star faded once Tim Vine left, and it definitely struggled through a couple of series with episodes that could have been better. But remaining loyal paid off, and I thought the final series was returning to its original form. The introduction of Hugh Dennis as a world-weary friend and neighbour was very refreshing.

Even though it’s disappointing that Dennis was only just getting into his stride, for our main characters, it made sense their living situation couldn’t last forever. I thought the marriage idea came a little bit out of nowhere – particularly after dragging it out for seven series(!) – but it was a lovely way to finish. Actually, the real finish was an additional episode of bloopers, geniusly called Not Going Outtakes. A great way to end the show, if it is the end.

Lee: I know what you think of me, but Lucy is good for me. Marrying her makes me want to be a better person, someone who achieves things.

Geoffrey: Then why are you slouching on your backside watching Eastenders eating cereal from a box?

Lee: Give me a chance, I haven’t married her yet.

It’s sad to know that these three won’t be gracing our screens or radios again in the forseeable future. Never say never, because comebacks are the in thing, but in comedy there’s often a feeling of going out on a high that sticks more than it does in, say, music. I’m just really impressed that three separate entities, that I have real affection for, all managed to end without ruining anything. TV and drama rarely delivers such a thing, so for it to happen three times in such quick succession meant it really was a good Christmas!

Harry Potter, from page to screen

harry-potter-logo

The history

My experiences with Harry Potter have been something of a rollercoaster. I enjoyed the books during their first run, but wasn’t hugely passionate about them – happy to wait for the paperback version, rather than stand in line at midnight for the final book’s release.

I somehow ended up owning just six of the seven physical books, so was super keen to own them as ebooks so I could a) complete my collection and b) ditch the last standing physical books I owned. JK Rowling finally capitulated and I was able to plow through them all, on my Kindle, for a second read.

This time round, they piqued my interest a lot more and I started to think about watching the films. The cinema version of Harry Potter’s story had absolutely passed me by. I was aware of the trio of actors and their level of fame because of these films but I hadn’t seen a single one. In fact, one of the Harry Potter movies was the reason I stopped going to the cinema.

When iTunes released an affordable bundle of all eight HP movies, I snapped them up. It wasn’t clear when I would get a chance to watch them, as I tend to use up my film watching windows with Mr C, and he wasn’t keen on the fantasy world of wizardry and wonder.

With a mixture of spare time over Christmas, and ongoing sickness, he caved in and watched the first one with me. After enjoying it more than he thought, we then binge watched the rest completing all eight films in such a short space of time that they did all start to merge into one glorious wizarding wonderland.

The reviews

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Book review (5/5) / Film review (4/5)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Book review (5/5) / Film review (3/5)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Book review (4/5) / Film review (4/5)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Book review (5/5) / Film review (5/5)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Book review (3/5) / Film review (3/5)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Book review (4/5) / Film review (3/5)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1): Book review (4/5) / Film review (2/5)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2): Film review (4/5)

harry-potter-trio

Conclusions

The beauty of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books isn’t the story she weaves, although good versus evil is always a good tale, one as old as time. What I think people really love about Potter is the universe that is created – the secret but believable wizarding world, with a ministry of their own, spells and potions that can help or hinder, and a school for talented kids ready to learn how to use a wand. Laid on top of this world is the drama and relationships that every child, teen and adult has to deal with, so that it’s relateable but still a fantasy.

It’s telling that Mr C, who wasn’t even slightly interested in Harry Potter pre-film, was saying midway through the series that he’d really just like to watch a day in the life of Ron. How he got through the magic lessons, navigated a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex, was cheeky to the portraits guarding the doors, that kind of thing. The story was great, but really just spending time with the characters in their domain was where it excelled.

The flip side to the joy of a huge and fascinating world is that it’s almost impossible to fit all that into a film. Or even eight films. There was so much missed from the books to the screen, I knew there was going to have to be cuts and yet it still unsettled me. All of the house elves at Hogwarts, much of the history Order of the Phoenix and where the heck was Percy Weasley?

The films did the best job they could, and contained everything required to tell the story. Mr C, in his ignorance of the source material, managed to get through them pretty well, although after the first couple of films there were plenty of questions he needed to ask to keep things clear in his head. The information comes thick and fast during each and every movie, there’s barely a second to think, and yet there’s still information missing.

Having said that, there were only two things I think were particularly wrong. The first was not explaining the nicknames and friendship of Padfoot, Wormtail, Mooney and Prongs better – especially because Padfoot as an alias became so important later. Secondly, the relationship between Lupin and Tonks. One tiny mention, where she calls him by a pet name, and then suddenly we are supposed to be deeply invested in their final film sacrifice. There’s such a backstory missing there, it didn’t quite work.

Seeing how good the stories are on screen, I think it would make an incredible TV series. Given the space to expand, to revel in the wizard’s world, and get into more of the details that make the Harry Potter books the success that they are would be brilliant. Of course you face the same problems as the movie must have – firstly that working with so many children is hard, secondly you’re asking for 10+ years of everyone’s life, and thirdly, when it comes down to it, there still is only so much screen time available.

In the end, I can only applaud what the screenwriters achieved, even if I have some reservations. Mr C was expecting to hate it, anticipating Lord of the Rings style fantasy that involves a lot of walking and thinking and fairies flitting about. It wasn’t that. It was fun and packed and curious and intense. It was more than sixteen hours of movie, and almost all of it was entertaining and worth watching.

Now we just have to find time for all the iTunes Extras.