Category Archives: Rated & recommended

Reviews of things I like or use.

Beer in Iceland

Beer in Iceland

A bottle of Gull beer next to a Kindle

I only tried two beers in Iceland. For various reasons (including cost) we didn’t eat out very often. You can only buy alcohol in a state-owned liquor store, and we never passed one at a convenient moment. Plus, a beer cost ISK800-990, which is about £5, so buying one was a bit of an investment! Prices for beer and food at the airport are actually cheaper than in town. In the departures/arrivals lounge (through security) you can buy a wide range of bottled beers for ISK800 each, so it’s a nice way to round off your trip. There are quite a few beers brewed in Iceland, so have a bit of a hunt if  you like the stuff!

A completely ordinary lager. It’s a pleasant drink, great for a hot summer’s day, with a bit of fizz. It’s the sort of beer you could drink like water, which may or may not be a good thing! Seems to be the default beer, but there are a lot of imports around, too, so be specific if you want to try a local brew.

Another lager, but one with a bit more to it. According to the bottle, it’s “brewed in the tradition of the German Münchner Helles method”, which explains its malty taste. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it over Viking as it actually has a bit of flavour.

Couch to 5k – reprise

Couch to 5k – reprise

I’ve started the Couch to 5k program — again.

The first time (the last time, the only time) I started the Couch to 5k was in July. I got all the way through to week 7 (although not in 7 weeks), did a week 8 level run (27 minutes non-stop) and then I stopped. I know why I stopped: it became much easier to stop than to continue.

When I started the program, my days were largely unscheduled, unhurried, and the weather was warm and sunny. It was easy to fit a run in, even if I put it off until late in the day. When I stopped, we were on the move, travelling every few days, and the weather had turned rainy. I did my last run when we were in Hamburg, about a week after the one before. Then, in mostly good ways, my days got busier. K now has a full time job in an actual office. We’re in England, and it has been raining. Staying in has been very, very easy.

Try again
The thing about stopping is that there’s no point at which that’s news. But to give an honest assessment of the program, I have to include the fact I stopped. I gave up. I did not complete the Couch to 5k program. At this point, I’m not sure if I will, if the podcasts and schedule still have meaning, if I’ll try to run 5km in my own time or set a different goal entirely.

The news, and the reason I’m typing, is that I’ve gone for a run again. I had another go. I didn’t follow the Couch to 5k podcast or a particular week of the program, but I did get out there and run. I ran along the river Thames near Oxford, at a place where it’s very pretty and quiet and a lot like Cambridge. I probably wouldn’t have walked there. The major advantage of running, so far as I can see, is that I see more places. Honestly, the only reason I went for a run yesterday was because K pointed out that we could go in Ireland, when we’re there, and that would be another country, making eight in total.

Fail better
Partly, I stopped running because I got bored, so I need to find a way to make it more interesting or I’ll stop again. Running for 60 seconds was scary and challenging. Running for 25 minutes non-stop is not, it turns out, intrinsically interesting, and leveling up from 25 to 27 minutes wasn’t exciting. The interval training at the beginning was more interesting but not thrilling. I doubt I’ll ever be a marathon runner, unless I figure out a way to read a book while I run. Maybe audio books would help, or a podcast – any suggestions?

Actually, now I think of it, I once interviewed a woman who runs marathons while knitting. Susie Hewer was an impressive person  to talk to, although she has a deceptively ordinary appearance, even on her blog, Extreme Knitting Redhead. Personally, I think knitting uses the same part of my brain as running, so they won’t stack well. That said, I can knit and walk and I haven’t fallen over while running yet, even when thinking quite hard, so maybe I’ll try it. I might have to buy some more yarn first though…

Failure is good enough
I’m quite pleased with my Couch to 5k progress. Heck, even putting on running shoes was a Big Scary Deal for this PE dropout. I’ve got to the stage where I can go for a run, and it’s not a big deal. I now believe I can run. When I started this, I didn’t believe I could run for so many minutes, even when I’d just done it. I thought it was a fluke, beginner’s luck, impossible to repeat. Now, I firmly believe that I can run for 27 minutes again – perhaps not right now, perhaps not tomorrow or this week, but one day soon – and that I can run for 30 minutes or 5km. I believe that, if I try and train, I can run for 10km or whatever goal I set. I’m not sure I want to – at my current pace, that would take, oh, roughly forever – but it’s a possible goal, and that’s rather exciting.

Couch to 5k

Couch to 5k

I’ve just started running. It’s news that’s going to shock anyone who knows me (the first person I told, via email, thought she’d imagined it). When I left school, my goal – and I may have vocalized this – was to never run again, unless it was vitally necessary for my personal survival. And even then I’d seriously consider, you know, not running. Now, I own running shoes and I’m happy about that – a pretty big reversal!

Me, in running shoes and smiling!

I’ve started the Couch to 5k program using the NHS podcasts. The program seems good to me. The podcasts are clear and easy to follow, and the NHS site has plenty of additional information if you want it. It’s pretty much the opposite of how I remember running at school. I’m doing the program with an added personal trainer element – K runs 10k for fun, and he’s kindly been coming out pootling along with me as I work through the program.

I hated running at school, hated every aspect of it. I don’t remember ever getting any instruction on how to run or an encouragement to take up a regular program which would lead to me being able to run comfortably. Or being given any information about running shoes or sports bras. Heck, I was well into secondary school before I discovered that having a stitch was a reason to stop running. Instead, we were – as far as I remember – taken into the sports hall (for the ‘beep test’) or out into the forest about twice a term and told to run. So about six times a year I was expected to have the capacity to run constantly for 20 or 40 minutes, something I never did otherwise, as every other sport we played involved significant amounts of waiting around mid-lesson. As an adult, this seems absolutely bonkers. How could that possibly work?

The Couch to 5k program starts off small – and I started off smaller. Thanks to the embarrassment, pain and unpleasantness of running at school, I am actually a little scared of going for a run. I would rather go on a roller coaster or go sky diving again. So I decided I’d go buy some running shoes. And I told K to remind me to do it. He did, and buying them freaked me out a bit. It helps to have someone normal with you when you’re freaking out. K says things like: “they’re just shoes” and “buying them doesn’t mean you have to run” and “running once doesn’t mean you have to do it again” and “it’ll be fine”.

Then I decided I’d download the podcast, put the shoes on and go outside. The first podcast asks you to run for a minute. A whole 60 seconds! I didn’t think I could do it – I gave myself permission to fail. So I was thrilled when I didn’t – at the end of the first run, my whole body was going ‘what just happened? and has it stopped?’ but I wasn’t collapsed on the sidewalk groaning.

Since then, I’ve done 8 more runs. I’ve just finished Week 3 of the program and it’s great. Each new session seems entirely impossible (I’m very resistant to the idea that I can run, it transpires, even when I have evidence to the contrary), but it’s actually been surprisingly doable. Each week builds up slowly, but keeps you moving. I’m up to 3 minutes of sustained running, but covering about 3k in each 20-30 minute session, so I think it’s going well.

As I didn’t think I would actually stick with this at all, I didn’t want to invest much in running gear. So far, two things have been really important: running shoes and a sports bra. K helped me choose decent shoes, which cost £35. The first thing I noticed is they have much more padding at the heel than any other shoes I’ve ever owned. I already had a decent sports bra, which I think cost about £12 from M&S a few years ago, and I’m glad I did because even with the sports bra, the first few runs it felt like everything was on the move, and not in the same direction. That’s not fun, y’all. You may not have this problem, but if you’re busty and thinking of running, don’t be put off – just go buy the kind of sports bra which says it’s for squash or other extreme sports! It will make a difference, trust me. Apart from that, I’ve been running in ordinary leggings and t-shirts, as you can see, and using my phone as an MP3 player, so very little investment overall.

I’m not going to pretend I love running or announce that I’m training to run a marathon. I’m not even convinced I’ll make it to Week 5. But I’ve done something I never thought I would, something that scares me. I’ve got this far, and that’s pretty cool.

Paris by film

Paris by film

I like seeing places before I visit, and tracking down places I’ve seen on film when I get there. The following three films are all ones I enjoyed enough to watch at least twice, and which show chunks of Paris, both famous and mundane locations.

Before Sunset (2004)
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke wander around Paris and talk about life, love and good coffee. Celine and Jesse  first met nine years ago, and spent one passionate night wandering around Vienna – as described in Before Sunrise (1995). Now they’ve met up again and are finding out who the other is and what’s happened since they parted.

A hard film to describe as it’s all about the conversation but Before Sunset is a beautiful, brilliant film. And you get to see lots of odd corners of Paris.
Filming locations for Before Sunset.

How to Steal a Million (1966)
Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole on a madcap romantic adventure. Nicole is the daughter of a forger, and to help keep him out of jail she needs to steal a statue from a museum – with a little help from a charming, irritating man.

Glamorous city, glamorous woman. See how things have changed and feel a bit smug when you see all the Breakfast at Tiffany’s posters for sale on the streets – wrong film, Paris!
Filming locations for How to Steal a Million.

Amelie (2001)
This film is so well-known for it’s Paris link that the cafe where Amelie (Audrey Tatou) works has become a top-10 destination in its own right. However, it’s still a lovely film and it does have some great shots of working Paris – the train stations and the small streets – as well as famous landmarks.
Filming locations for Amelie.

Vinegar: Good on Chips, Great on Limescale

Vinegar: Good on Chips, Great on Limescale

A clear perspex shower screen covered with white calcium deposits (limescale)A clear shower screen without limescale

Before and after shots. The shower screen in our bathroom is a limescale magnet, particularly now that it’s too cold to leave the window open to let it dry properly.

The warnings on household cleaners scare me and I do try to be eco-friendly, so I was pleased to find a tip for dealing with limescale which didn’t involve a chemical soup and which actually works.

Vinegar removes limescale without scrubbing
The instructions are super simple:

  1. Thoroughly wet a cloth with vinegar.
  2. Lay it on the limescaled area (I used a light cloth which stuck to the screen).
  3. Leave for a while (I meant to leave it for about 20 minutes, but it was probably longer).
  4. Remove cloth and rinse area with water.

Ta da! Clean shower screen. And a slight smell of chip shop.

I’m really impressed with this trick, and it works a lot better than the commercial limescale removers I’ve tried.

Another vinegar tip: window cleaner
I’ve been using a mix of  1 part vinegar, 8 parts water and a squeeze of washing-up liquid as a window cleaner for a while, but it wasn’t concentrated enough to tackle the limescale. Definitely recommend it though.

Continuity – free online game review

Continuity – free online game review

Screenshot of Continuity Level 3 showing three boxes with paths through them and a stick figure trying to get to a red door

Continuity is a free online game designed as part of a student project. The rules and interface are simple but the puzzles are challenging and interesting: I’ve played it all the way through twice. And started again when writing this review.

How it works
The goal is simple: get the stick figure to the door. And if the door is locked, get the key first. There aren’t even monsters or spikes to slow you down.

The puzzle is the path which you create as you go. Press space to switch from controlling your character to controlling the rooms and move them around with the arrows.

Why I like it
Continuity uses the otherworldliness of computer games to its advantage. You can walk right for twenty minutes by going through the same two tunnel pieces over and over. You can fall endlessly or step back through a door and find yourself in a different room to the one you left.

In this virtual world, the player is in control of the terrain, so the switches and inconsistencies which make playing certain labyrinth games I could name frustrating just make Continuity more interesting. You can see where you’re going – you just have to line up the rooms to walk through to get there.

It’s a small game, but it’s properly virtual: you can do things which are logically possible but real-world impossible such a freeze a character mid-jump then switch the ground out from under them (shown in the screen shot) or chop your character in half by standing in two rooms at once (this does not end well).

All in all, it’s a fun way to spend an hour or two and I definitely recommend it.

Time-suck rating
It’s compelling but only has 32 levels so the potential to lose a weekend is limited.

Kindle – review

Kindle – review

I didn’t want a Kindle. I read a lot and thought I didn’t need one. I like secondhand bookshops, libraries and charity shops. I like the pictures on the cover and the familiar weight of a well-loved book.

Fortunately, my parents didn’t ask if I wanted one – they bought me one as a gift. And it’s rather brilliant.

A portable library
I’ve got over 100 books on my Kindle. I can go on a trip and not worry about running out of reading material halfway through the month never mind halfway through the journey.

That also means I can switch between books more easily and have even more on the go than before. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing though.

Can knit and read
As the Kindle doesn’t need to be propped open, it’s easy to do something else with your hands while you read. I tend to knit but you might use a cycling machine or pair socks or wash up.

Free samples
Any time someone recommends a book, I download the sample – it’s the best way of keeping a ‘maybe read’ list I’ve ever found and as a result I’m reading more books by new authors than ever before.

More money to authors
Until I got a Kindle, 90% of the books I bought were secondhand, because of the price. Now 90% are new. While I’m giving less money to the Red Cross shop, I’m giving more money to the authors who wrote the books I love.

Can’t lend or give away books
It’s harder to share books with friends as they have to buy the books I recommend rather than borrow them. And I miss the thrill of finding something brilliant somewhere unexpected.

Hard to browse
You can judge a book by it’s cover – that’s what they’re for. Amazon’s site and the Kindle’s collections system don’t use this information. If you know what you want, you’ll find it but if you’re not sure it’s easier to browse a bookshop for a new book or an old-fashioned bookshelf to find something you’re in the mood for.

Free can be expensive
There are hundreds of free books available on Kindle, which suddenly makes paying even 99p for one seem expensive. Unfortunately, the diamonds are surrounded by a lot of rough. Reading books I don’t enjoy is a waste of time, even if they’re free.

In six months, the Kindle has changed the way I read. While there are downsides compared to paper books, I wouldn’t hesitate to replace it if it got broken or stolen: I’m a convert.