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Review: Gibraltar

This is a travel blog now.

Just joking, I still hate travel bloggers. And there’s nowhere more ‘wanderlust’ than the glorious sights and sounds of the overseas British territory of Gibraltar.

Again, I’m joking. But I did actually go to Gibraltar this week and I have some thoughts about it. So I’m just going to leave them here if that’s ok with you.

Why Gibraltar?

Good question! Every single person I’ve told about my holiday has asked why on Earth I’d go to Gibraltar. The answer is a bit complicated, but basically boils down to this: I wanted to go somewhere abroad, it’s an easy country to visit, and it’s always kinda fascinated me.

This is a postcard I bought in 2010, and I always found it really interesting. You can see pretty much all of Gibraltar there (it’s only 2.6 square miles big). And you’ll notice that it’s dominated by a MASSIVE GREAT BIG ROCK. Just the idea of there being a settlement living under the shadow of this nightmarish geographic landscape is really cool, in my opinion.

And in person it’s even more amazing. Here’s the view from outside the hotel I was staying in:

Wherever you are in Gibraltar, the Rock looms over you. Ever-present, ominous, quasi-Lovecraftian in nature. Like imagine if Brighton just had a huge mountain in the middle of it, and everything had to be built around it. It feels like some rule has been broken. It’s distinctly unnatural, and genuinely spooky at times.

But yeah, that’s probably reading too much into what is basically just a big rock. It’s just very impressive.

It’s also COVERED IN ADORABLE MONKEYS.

Well, I say ‘adorable.’ They’re still wild animals, they’re just used to being around humans. So they’re not friendly in any sense. They mostly just ignore you, unless you have food – in which case they turn into the most vicious claw and tooth machines ever known. So yeah.

There’s even more mysteries to be found within the rock itself. Like these gnarly caves:

Or these old war tunnels:

There’s apparently more miles of road within the Rock of Gibraltar than outside/around it – which is pretty nuts. A lot of it is still secreted away, and used for various military purposes. So that’s fun too!

So that’s the Geography of Gibraltar. What of its history? Turns out it’s ALSO REALLY INTERESTING.

Gibraltar was first permanently settled upon around 711 AD by the Moorish, led by Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad. They named the place after him too: ‘Jebel’ being Arabic for ‘mount’ and ‘Tariq’ being the dude’s name. Thus Jebel Tariq (Tariq’s Mount), becoming Gibraltar over the years.

HOW INTERESTING IS THAT.

Oh, and Gibraltar stayed under Muslim rule for about SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS. The legacy of these centuries can still be seen today with things like a pretty battered Moorish castle on the Rock, a beautiful mosque to the south, and – of course – the monkeys, brought over from North Africa.

Then like French and Spain and the Netherlands for some reason and the British fought over it for a few hundred years. And since 1713 it’s been under British control.

I spoke to a few Gibraltans, and they’re a very proud people. They’re proud to be British but not in the flag-waving ‘well EDL’ sense that we associate with that phrase. Gibraltar is a unique part of the world, with a dense history. The people there understand how unusual their situation is and couldn’t be happier to be living in a little part of Britain out in the big wide world.

It’s hard to capture exactly what I’m trying to say here, but my overriding sense was that the people aren’t just a bunch of nationalist ex-pats who have a weird thing for British colonisation – which I think is the assumption most people have. They’re mostly pretty cool.

So let’s quickly talk about the whole British thing. Sigh.

In Gibraltar I went to Morrisons, Marks &  Spencer, Costa Coffee, Debenhams, and a WH Smith. How horrific I hear you cry, going all that way just to go to the same shops we have here. Remember, Gibraltar is a British territory. It’s not actually Spain. Of course it’s going to have the same shops as us. Likewise with the red letter boxes and British policemen. What do you expect them to do differently?

If it helps, don’t think of it as abroad at all. Just think of it as another part of the UK that takes a while to get to, and has much much nicer weather. Because that’s basically what it is.

BUT HOW WAS THE FOOD RICHARD

Meh. The default cuisine seems to be ‘fish and chips’ – partly as a result of the whole ‘British heritage’ thing, and partly because it’s a coastal region so fish is like all they’ve got. I had some VERY NICE seafood though – like these skewers.

Or this very tasty paella:

I also had this weird thing, which is a fillet steak stuffed with king prawns:

The brininess of the prawns kinda ruined the steak for me, but I had to try it. Holidays are all about new experiences after all, right?

But yeah, don’t go there for the food. Go there for stuff like this:

This is Catalan Bay – a small village on the eastern side of the rock. There’s a few bars/restaurants along the seafront and a big hotel (where I stayed), but apart from that it’s super quiet and mostly residential.

When I first arrived I thought I’d screwed up. I was on the wrong side of the Rock to the rest of town. That meant I couldn’t easily just walk in and check things out. But this turned out to be a good thing. The main town area is really busy, loud, and touristy. On the other hand, this quiet little bay was pretty much perfect for just chilling out. And buses ran every 15 minutes into town (a 15 minute journey itself), with a day rider ticket costing £2.50.

I’d recommend doing the same if you visit. Staying in town looks like it might just be a bit too aggro.

So in conclusion

Gibraltar is a really interesting place. It’s got a rich history, fascinating geography, and a unique blend of a tropical climate with British culture. It might not be for everyone, but it’s for more people than I think would expect to like it. And I’m glad I went.


Why Gibraltar?

I want to return to this question. I didn’t just go to Gibraltar because I wanted to look at a big rock and some monkeys. It was also a personal challenge to myself. I’ve never been away on holiday on my own before, and I wanted to see if I could do it, or if my anxiety would win. Because being alone on holiday is involves a whole load of things that trigger my anxiety:

  • Travelling alone
  • Eating alone
  • Being alone in public
  • Navigating unfamiliar places
  • Logistical organisation (booking flights, hotels, etc)

And I find it really hard to relax in general. The GAD-7 questionnaire for anxiety (which I have to do every week at the moment) asks if you’re having trouble relaxing as part of the scoring. And honestly, I find it difficult to relax most of the time! Like, I can’t just go and sit down and chill – I have to be occupied. (I’m no good at just ‘going to sit in the sun’ for example, which makes summer difficult). On this holiday, I wanted to see if I could actually do it: relaxing, in an atmosphere that is extremely conducive to relaxing.

That’s why I picked Gibraltar. Having a familiar language, and a shared currency means visiting it was super easy. The usual things I worry about on holiday (the language is a big one!) were eliminated. I could just get a taxi from the airport, explain where I wanted to go, and pay using the same notes and coins I already had in my wallet. The place is small enough that you can’t really get lost, and there wasn’t too much worry of being ‘late’ for anything. (There was just one point where I got anxious because I couldn’t find a coach I needed to get). Basically, I set myself an easy target.

I even managed to relax! I spent half a day just sitting in one of the restaurants by the sea, drinking beers, eating seafood, and reading in the sun. And I felt kinda… content? Like I didn’t need anything else in that moment. And that’s weird for me. I wish I could feel like that more often.

So I succeeded. I proved to myself that my anxiety doesn’t have to stop me from doing things. And I learnt that I am capable of feeling relaxed (in the right circumstances). Of course, now I’m back in London I’m immediately feeling stressed and worried again. But at least I know it’s possible.

Review: Withings Activité Pop

Yup, it’s another wearable review! But this one’s actually a good one, I promise.

After not getting on very well with shocking wristbands and posture correctors, I may have finally found something good – the Withings Activité watch.

What is it? Well, it’s basically just a normal watch.

OK THANKS FOR READING THE REVIEW EVERYONE GOODBYE

Nah, it’s a little bit more than just a watch. Not so much more that it falls into another category though. It’s not a Jawbone or Fitbit – one of those so-called ‘activity trackers’. But it’s also not so advanced that you could call it a smart watch either. It’s just an activity tracking watch, a watch that does activity tracking. And it’s this simplicity that I find really refreshing.

Years ago I had a Jawbone Up. A horrible orange thing on my wrist that I had to charge every day and ended up breaking. But the list of things it could do was endless! It could track your movements, track your sleep, track your heart rate, track your eating (if you told it), track your mood (if you told it), just track your whole goddam life. It was kind of overwhelming, and ultimately… kind of useless. Worse still, even with all that you still had to wear a watch anyway if you wanted to know the time. So yeah, it was kind of dumb.

I don’t know what kind of wizardry is going on inside the Withings Activité, but here’s what it can do:

  • Activity/step tracking (visualised on the watch as a separate dial)
  • Sleep tracking
  • ‘Silent’ alarm (it vibrates on your wrist)
  • Bluetooth syncing to an app
  • 8 months of battery life

Yes, 8 months. To me, that’s the most incredible thing ever. I’m wearing a thing on my watch that’s counting my steps all day long AND telling my phone how many I’m doing, AND it’s also monitoring my sleep AND waking me up at the right time AND YET somehow it can just tick along for months and months without giving up. How is that even possible? My phone can play like half an episode of Game of Thrones before it starts getting thirsty. So yeah, massive props to the engineers behind this device.

Oh yes, another thing to mention:

  • IT TELLS THE TIME

In other words, it functions as a watch. You know, hours and minutes and all that. It automatically resets itself in line with daylight savings or if you go abroad (so basically whatever time your phone is telling the watch it is), which is neat! You can also triple tap the watch face at any time to check when you have your alarm set for. The hands magically whirl around to that time, which is one of the coolest things to just show off to people.

It really helps that it looks like a normal watch too, unlike the Jawbone (bright orange silicone was such a poor design choice). I know activity tracker design is becoming more fashionable anyway, but it makes SO MUCH SENSE for this wrist-held activity tracker to just be a watch that I can’t imagine having it any other way.

I opted for the black ‘Activité Pop’ version of the watch. The ‘Pop’ range is just a cheaper set of price and colour options, but they don’t feel especially ‘budget’ or anything like that. Also, I think ‘Withings’ as a company either no longer exists or has been entirely consumed by Nokia, so you’ll find that as the product name in most places.

Nokia are pushing the ‘Steel’ range in place of Pop. The Steel watches are functionally the same as the Pop ones, as far as I can tell (although the Steel HR also monitors your heart rate), but are made from sturdier materials. I mean, sure go for that if you want a metal watch that looks REALLY good. But I think the plastic ones are fine.

And good news, you can still buy the old Activité Pop watches on Amazon. For just £50 too. That’s a good deal. (Don’t worry I’m not getting paid for this, and I don’t know how to set up affiliate links lol).

Downsides? Not many. Replacing the battery is a little bit fiddly and I’ve had to replace the strap, but that’s all fine. Oh, did I mention that the watch is WATERPROOF too? Lol this thing is just too perfect.

Treat yourself this Christmas. Or don’t. What do I care what you do?

Review: Risk Legacy

Risk Legacy is the greatest board game I’ve ever played.

COOL THANKS FOR READING BYE.

Nah, I’m gonna write something proper here. Because I think Risk Legacy is a game that everybody should play.

Spoiler Warning, maybe? It’s best played with absolutely no knowledge of what actually happens in the game. But I’ll just be talking about gameplay mechanics, etc. Just don’t look too closely at the photos if you’re worried about that kinda thing.

But what is Risk Legacy, anyway? Isn’t it just plain ol’ boring Risk? No.

Risk Legacy ain’t yo momma’s Risk. It’s an arduous campaign of death and destruction that demands your blood, sweat, and tears. It’s a game that you have to literally sign before you start, swearing that everything that happens from that point on is your own fault. It’s a game where your mistakes come back to haunt you forever. And it’s so much fun.

The basic idea is this: the classic territory-domination gameplay of Risk, but with ‘legacy’ elements. By ‘legacy’, we mean that the outcomes of previous games affect future ones. Found a city in a region in one game, and it’ll be there the next game. Ten games later that might the stronghold that everyone’s fighting for. Real choices with real consequences.

There’s personalisation elements: winning games gives you the option of naming cities and continents. And there’s destruction: cards are literally torn up and discarded. Permanently. The game chews you up and throws you out, but you’re also doing the same to the board. The resulting wine-stained, food-encrusted, scribble-laden board is a unique treasure.

Then there are the boxes. Every game should have boxes. These are sealed compartments within the game’s case, only opened once certain conditions are met. And their contents literally change the entire game. I remember one in particular had us all screaming for ages, and we never scream out loud. The only letdown with this element is that a few times we played in a way that would specifically lead to a box being opened, because we loved them so much, rather than them naturally occurring in the game. But it’s such a great concept I don’t even care.

With a campaign of 15 games to play, and a playtime of a couple of hours for each game, there’s hours of entertainment to be had with Risk Legacy. Alliances are formed, rivalries develop, and – most of all – memes are born. Oh my god, the memes. For instance, dice rolling is a large part of the combat, and we ended up using a massive Oreo tin as the arena for these rolls. Somehow it became known as “The Thunderdome” and I still call it that to this day. Or how we would all raise a glass and toast “to the game!” at random intervals.

There’s not much else to say about this game other than I wish I could erase it from my mind and play it all over again. The game works in such a way that you could keep on using your board for endless games after the campaign is officially done. But that feels somehow profane. Our completed board is a sacred thing, and shouldn’t be desecrated by ersatz imitations of previous battles. I proposed burying the board in the garden, but that wasn’t a popular idea.

I guess the elephant in the room here is Pandemic Legacy. Somehow this is the one that everyone always talks about. If you don’t know, Pandemic Legacy is a co-operative disease-battling game… with legacy elements! (Risk Legacy came first by the way). I’ve also played a full campaign of Pandemic Legacy, but it just didn’t do it for me in the same way. It couldn’t scratch that itch.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it didn’t compare, and I think it’s because PL is co-operative while RL is PvP [player vs player]. There’s something about everyone trying to beat each other over the course of 15 games that I really love. A clear winner emerging and everyone temporarily banding together to bring them down. There’s power dynamics at play that a co-operative game, where you all win or lose together,  just can’t have. I’d recommend both, just Risk Legacy first any day.

So, should you play Risk Legacy? OH MY GOD YES WHY AREN’T YOU PLAYING IT ALREADY? Just invite me to come play too.

Review: Pavlok

ALT. TITLE: The lengths I’ll go to in order to build my portfolio of tech writing pieces.

What’s that on your wrist? Is it a FitBit? Oh my god, it does WHAT?

Wearables are all the rage right now. You know, tech what you can WEAR on your bod. Years ago I jumped on the wear-wagon and got myself a Jawbone UP. It promised me the world; track your eating, your movement, your sleep! Become a new person overnight and accessorise that person with a funky neon bracelet.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. I was too lazy to ever input the calories, or ever walk anywhere, and the sleep thing was more of an annoyance than anything. It also stopped working after it got wet a few times and so I just gave up on it.

But apparently I don’t learn from these mistakes and was lured into the trap of believing that my life wouldn’t be complete without the latest must-have wrist trap: a Pavlok. Pavlok describes itself as “the first device that breaks habits by deleting temptation.” If that reads like it’s some kind of brainwashing, then I’d say that’s more or less right. Working off Pavlovian conditioning (geddit? not sure what the ‘lok’ bit is though), it’s a wearable bracelet that gives you a mild electric shock when you press it. Yes, that’s really what it is. Here’s a couple of picture images:

2016-06-22 15.34.30 2016-06-22 15.35.22

As you can see, it’s actually just a battery that fits into a larger plastic sheath. Put together, the whole thing is slightly larger than a watch, which makes it pretty clunky to wear. If you wear long-sleeved shirts, then you either have to hoik your cuffs over it all the time, or permanently live with asymetrical sleeves (the horror). Compare this to the figure-hugging design of the FitBit or Jawbone UP, devices which are meant to be as much fashion accessories as a piece of tech. There’s clearly work to be done at Pavlok in the design department.

But what can they do, really? The device is basically just a battery you strap to yourself. It’s got some other stuff in there like a Bluetooth receiver, vibration capabilities, some kind of little speaker and lots of LEDs for status displays. But it is mostly a battery and as such, there is a direct relationship between its size and utility (battery life). But that’s one for the boffins to figure out. LET’S TALK ABOUT PAIN.

So this thing gives you electric shocks when you press it. The shocks are meant to be unpleasant. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feel conditioned to stop, would you? For the faint of heart, you can control the level of the zap through the mind-boggingly superfluous app, or by lightly tapping the Pavlok itself. When I started, I had it at around 25% but I soon had to increase that as I became used to the sensation. And eventually it stopped being painful at all, which I think is a problem. Just as the body learns to condition behaviour to negative stimuli, so too is it able to adapt to them.

When I was little, I tried Stop’n’Grow to prevent nail biting. It’s basically a bitter-tasting nail varnish that you use to help yourself off biting. But of course you simply get used to the taste. As I’d got the Pavlok to help myself stop biting my nails too, it was kind of ironic that I ran into this same issue. I guess my body/mind just loves biting nails so much that it’ll do anything to keep at it. You could punch me in the face really really hard every time I bit, and I’d probably still go right at ’em. In fact, that’d only make me more anxious and make me bite even more.

Because that’s the real issue, isn’t it? Habits like nail biting, hair pulling, and skin picking aren’t done so much because of the positive feelings derived from them, but as a outer manifestation of an inner unrest. Compare to smoking, for instance, in which you’re physically addicted to a substance and demanding that in and of itself. There’s no ‘rush’ from nail biting, just a relief. So you can’t treat nail biting in the same way as you’d treat smoking, or similar habits. I don’t think I’ll ever stop biting my nails until I conquer my own inner anxieties, and strapping an electric shock device to myself can’t be the right direction.

It also bears an all-too-similar appearance to ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy), in which electric shocks are administered to treat mental health problems. As history – and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – has taught us, this isn’t really the right approach.

But psychology aside, it’s worth talking about the product as a piece of technology. Functionally, it works fine. The device is responsive to the touch and mostly zaps me just as I’d expect. On the occasion that I don’t feel anything, it’s usually a result of not having the strap done up tight enough to complete the circuit, so my bad I guess.

One fundamental flaw in the idea, as many, many people I’ve talked to about it have pointed out, is that you have to self-administer the shocks. So it’s entirely on you to make sure that you’re properly treating yourself. This is a pretty big drawback, as the exercise collapses back down into a matter of willpower. If I don’t have the willpower to stop myself biting, it’s a big leap to assume I’ll have the willpower to instead give myself an electric shock every time I notice myself biting.

That’s the other problem, I have to notice it. Habits like nail biting are mostly unconscious. A lot of the time I don’t even notice my hand at my mouth, it just pops up there of its own accord. So I’ve had to rely on other people to remind me that I’m biting and then shock myself. In a few cases, people have taken this to mean literally grabbing my wrist and shocking me, which isn’t much fun. And if people are going to remind me to shock myself, maybe they could just tell me to biting in the first place? Noticing a pattern yet? Basically, the Pavlok seems to do a lot of work to make itself redundant.

I should add that there is a function in the Pavlok app (which works over Bluetooth, available on iOS/Android) that automatically zaps when you put your hand to your face. I guess the device has an inbuilt accelerometer. This sounds like the perfect solution, but I never once got it to work. Also, most people have TWO WRISTS so it’s literally a half measure. Nice try, though!

The app also doesn’t do anything else like tracking your movement or anything. So if you want to do that, I guess you’ll need to buy ANOTHER wristband? Depends how much you value your wrist real estate I guess. The app does have a Headspace-style mindfulness course that guides you through your first days with the device, but it wasn’t anything special.

Anyway, I want to wrap this up with a very sarcastic conclusion. I’m of the opinion that the Pavlok device is a fine implementation of a dubious idea. Not only that, but that everything it does can be just as well done by a humble elastic band. So let’s compare.

PAVLOK

Pros:

  • Works most of the time
  • Could help improve your habits (there is some science supporting it, and I did see some improvements in my nails in the few months I wore it)
  • Could trick your gullible friends into thinking you have a cooler device like a FitBit
  • Getting people to put the device on and using the app to remotely shock them over and over again is great fun.
  • Decent battery life

Cons:

  • Will probably kill you if you have a heart condition
  • $179
  • Painful at the highest settings, ineffective at lower ones
  • Needing to rely on other people for it to really do anything
  • Having to put up with people asking you if it’s a FitBit all the time
  • Having to explain what the device is, and why anyone would ever willingly want to shock themselves (“No, it’s not a masochistic thing”)
  • Running the gauntlet of getting it through airport security (I never took it away with me, but imagine having to explain “Oh this, it’s just my device that gives people electric shocks…”).
  • Bigger than Godzilla.

PINGING YOURSELF WITH AN ELASTIC BAND

Pros:

  • Works all of the time
  • Literally the same psychological benefits as Pavlok
  • Comes in lots of different shapes, sizes, and colours
  • You can buy like 100 for £1
  • Infinite battery life

Cons:

  • Breaks easily (but very replaceable).
  • Doesn’t give you anything interesting to write a tech blog about
  • er… that might be it?

So, my verdict?

elastic-band

Go elastic.

Review: Faulty Towers – The Dining Experience

You might have read in the news recently that John Cleese is considering suing a theatrical dining experience based around his classic sitcom, Fawlty Towers. This of course meant I had to go and check it out for myself.

Well, to be honest, I’d booked the tickets long ago. A birthday treat for OJ, it seemed like a fun evening out, and an easy way to get a show and a meal in the same place. Anyway, long story short, I went there last night.

Currently based in the Charring Cross Amba Hotel, the Faulty Towers Dining Experience is basically everything you remember from the BBC sitcom condensed into a two-hour sit down meal, with little-or-not effort made to make it at all different from the real thing.

Last October I went to a Twin Peaks-based dining experience for my birthday. For that, they at least made an effort to be somewhat original, changing the characters names and such. They even renamed the town of “Twin Peaks” to “Double Pineview” (geddit?). Faulty Towers however, literally just changed the ‘w’ in Fawlty to a ‘u’, not only failing to be distinguishable to any reasonable person, but also losing the clever wordplay of the original in the first place. And apparently that’s all you need to do in order to get away with not paying the original creator any monies?

LEGAL NOTICE: I am not a lawyer and have no understanding of how copyright stuff works. My opinions are just my opinions.

All the characters are called the same too. There’s three of them, Basil, Manuel, and Mrs Faulty (I guess Polly didn’t make the cut), and they are just carbon copies of the originals.

2016-03-25 20.11.53

Well, close enough anyway. All credit to the actors, they do a fine job of channeling the performances of Cleese, Sachs, and Scales. But it’s all just too familiar.

Expect to see beat-for-beat recreations of all the ‘best bits’ of Fawlty Towers. Basil trying to get Manuel to place a bet on a horse, a floundering attempt at doing a fire drill, and – yes – the inevitable build-up to that German scene.

It’s interesting that photos are encouraged, but taking video isn’t. We were even politely reminded halfway through our meal of this fact. I guess that the fact that lawsuits are hanging in the air means that the cast don’t want any footage circulating of just how similar the show is to the original. A picture can’t show what lines are being repeated verbatim, after all. So I can really only offer my anecdotal opinion, and say that I think John Cleese has a fair point and there’s a good case that he’s being ripped off.

What about the food itself? Well, it’s a mere prop to the show really. Stale bread rolls are thrown across the room with reckless abandon. Soup arrives late and of inconsistent volume. The main is an uninspired chicken supreme that is anything but. Not even a Waldorf Salad in sight.

Compare to the Twin Peaks dining experience I went to, where the food was original and memorable. A mushroom soup served in a coffee cup, and so on. And considering the price of Faulty Towers (£60 a pop), I kind of expected better. The whole thing being a deliberate shambles is one thing, but it doesn’t really excuse low quality.

And overall the Twin Peaks thing was a more immersive experience. You were given a character, and you got involved. With Faulty Towers, you’re more of a passive observer of the evening. Aside from being called a pervert by Basil, and Manuel saying I looked like a rat, there wasn’t much for me to do.

On the plus side, the physical comedy and make-believe violence breaks up the evening and is pretty convincing.

2016-03-25 19.51.09

Maybe the evening just wasn’t for me though. The main demographic of the audience was couples in their 50s. An aging, white audience who are more than happy to laugh along with tired stereotypes and thinly-veiled xenophobia. Basil mocking any audience members for being even a little foreign is particularly problematic as you know he’s ad-libbing. I mean, he’s making up racist comments to say on the spot. That just doesn’t sit right with me.

And even the rest of the material can’t help but feel a little dated. A lot of the jokes, especially early on, follow the same format.

BASIL: Manuel! Please do [x]
MANUEL: X? Ok, I do [x]!
MANUEL PROCEEDS TO DO THE LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF X THAT IS CLEARLY NOT WHAT BASIL INTENDED
BASIL: What on EARTH are you doing?!
MANUEL: You said to do [x]!
BASIL: Not [X], you idiot! [X] like this….

Where [X] is something like ‘collect everyone’s glasses’ or ‘rolls on the plates.’

I think I’d have preferred it if it had been a more intimate experience, with a fresh script. I know everyone there just wants to see their favourite scenes, but it doesn’t do the show any favours. Several classic lines are built up far too much and receive a round of applause afterwards everytime – which just feels so cynical to me.

How about a dining experience with the same characters, but Basil’s had to sell the hotel and is now running a B&B in Dover, or something? Bring it up to date a bit. Manuel’s got a son now, and Polly has a screaming baby. You can keep all the dynamics and stupid jokes that people love, without having to recreate things exactly or cross the line on copyright.

So, go and see the show if you’re after an interesting night out with someone who’s an UBER Fawlty Towers fan. They’ll probably love it. And despite what I’ve said, I did have a good time. I just found it problematic in places and a bit of a let down in others.

Oh, and bring cash. You have to pay for all your drinks 🙁

Review: Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

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This is a book about burning books. But maybe you know that already, because this book is like super famous. It’s on loads of lists of books and things, so I thought it was about time I got around to reading it.

It’s kind of a light sci-fi, in the dystopian theme. Chronologically, it could be set as little as like twenty years in the future. Much of the tech in it isn’t too far from what we have now, as it’s implemented in nice understated ways.

For instance, the main character’s wife is obsessed with this ‘parlour’ in her house where she watches literal wall-to-wall TV with characters who interact with her. She ends up spending all day in this room, neglecting reality. So basically video games and oculus rift and all that.

More interesting is the picture of society painted by Bradbury. It’s a dystopia though not so much in the Orwellian vein (though there is a bit of that). It’s more a cultural dystopia, where entertainment rules.

Many readers take Fahrenheit 451 to be a clearcut tale about the tyranny of censorship by the government. But I read it more as a moralistic vision of how we need to stop ourselves sleepwalking into a cultural vacuum. In Bradbury’s future, books are outlawed not so much because they are dangerous, but because they are boring. It’s a society where only the fast and easily understandable can be accepted, and books are evil because they can confuse the mind.

I really appreciated the nuance that Bradbury approached this topic with. And the sci-fi in it is nice and original – there’s a fascinating mechanical hound in it that really sticks in the memory.

My only gripe is that the book itself is rather short. There’s a great character we’re introduced to at the beginning that never gets followed up on. And the ending of the book isn’t really a satisfying conclusion to the story. But overall it was great and I really liked it!

Rating: 5/5

Review: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Ok, so what the hell did I just read?

I get that this is a post-modern classic, but it really didn’t work for me. It’s all over the place, and not in a good way.

For a start, the book has literally hundreds of characters. And it’s not always clear who they are or what they’re up to. And then they’ll disappear for hundreds of pages. (And I MEAN hundreds – this book is loooonnng!).

The way the story is told is also kind of a mess. You really have to piece together what the overall plot is. This works really well in some books (eg. Infinite Jest), but here it was just kind of annoying. LIke there’ll just be a whole chapter about something entirely irrelevant – a sentient lightbulb or something like that.

Maybe if the book was funnier this would work. Sure, there’s plenty of humour, but it’s pretty obtuse. Like the ‘hero’ of the book is this army guy called Slothrop – who runs all over Europe getting into adventures. At one point he’s dressed up as a pig, another time he’s a superhero called Rocketman.

I’m not saying it’s a terrible book by any means. It’s pretty highly acclaimed. I just think I didn’t get it.

Book review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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So I read this book because it was free on my Kindle for some reason. Also I’d seen the Swedish original film and the US remake and thought they were pretty great.

The book itself is reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel. It’s a gripping thriller, a compelling page-turner, and all those other descriptions that sum it up as the perfect commuter book. It’s something you can enjoy for what it is in short doses, without having to worry about it being too much of a literary masterpiece.

Not that the plot’s overly simple though. The fact it’s based in Sweden instantly makes it that little bit less accessible. The bulk of the story is about the disappearance of a young girl in the past, but really revolving around a spiralling family of double-crossing industrialists. Keeping track of all the family members is quite a task, but having seen the film versions helped with this (I just thought ‘ah yes, that’s Stellan Skarsgård’s character…).

The sub-plot is also about a Swedish industrialist and his nefarious corporate dealings. I hope you like reading pages about holding accounts and sorting codes!

But yeah, I enjoyed the book for what it was worth – considering I paid nothing for it. I intend to go on and read the subsequent books in the series, but more for the sake completeness than anything else.

Rating: 4/5

Post-script: I just wanted to say that I think the central character of Mikael Blomkvist is super interesting. He’s like a nerdy James Bond. Which makes it no surprise that Daniel Craig played him in the US remake:

Sexy. Brooding. Mysterious. A great casting.

But who played our hero in the original Swedish film?

This guy.

LOL

Review: Dave Gorman vs. the Rest of the World

More of the same from Gorman. Which is a shame really, because I really wanted something good.

In this book, Dave Gorman travels around the UK meeting people and playing games. It’s standard Gorman fare then, travel + people + some vague ‘aim.’ But it doesn’t hold up to the others in my opinion, and generally feels like an all-round more muted experience.

For a start, there’s no real challenge to speak of. The beauty of Googlewhack / AYDG? was that it was a race against time to find/do something. In this, Gorman just randomly meets up with people to play games with them. There’s a subplot about his upcoming marriage, but there’s no significant interplay between the two. There’s nothing at stake, and reading about someone just meeting people in pubs turns out to not be that interesting.

It’s also confined just to the UK, which is a shame given the globetrotting-ness of the previous outings. Reading about Sheffield train station doesn’t quite have the appeal as his roadtrip across America.

The games themselves are fine, and quite interesting – even when they are just Monopoly and Guess Who. The people are supposed to be the real focus I guess, and Dave’s compassion for the people he meets is plain to read. Even the weird ones.

In all then, this felt liked a dumbed down version of his other work. It almost read like a newspaper weekly column, as opposed to a proper book-adventure. It even felt shorter. I didn’t hate it though, just found it rather average.

Rating: 3/5