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Why would I make a pointless cringe-worthy exhibition out of splashing a small quantity of faintly cold liquid on my head at the behest of some other attention-seeking wannabe in the name of some charity that I didn’t really care about a week ago? I know, it’s a hypocritical use of time, bandwidth and water much less a challenge.
The practice of announcing the names of your 3 acquaintances to an overpriced smartphone before making yourself moist and posting it on Facebook reeks of desperate loneliness. One can only hope that the human race will at some point take itself outside, slap itself around the face and get itself some friends.
On the other hand, you have critics desperately seeking notoriety with nothing better to do than spray their particular brand of sneering condescension at other people’s silliness. Where do people get off telling others how to spend our free time, in the garden amusing the kids?
While the scummier part of the gene pool is off busily gambling our savings or designing ingenious methods of torcher and annihilation, how is it that as a species we find the time and energy to ridicule individuals for taking part in what is essentially a slightly sad online wet t-shirt competition?
You only have to watch Arlo’s ecstatic reaction to his dad making a tit of himself to know how much pleasure can be derived from a washing-up bowl and a half-full ice cube tray.
Bickering about which charity is more deserving of the windfall is symptomatic of our social media adolescence. We have only just begun to recognise the power of this technology and its awesome ability to spread ideas. And like television, the printing press or even some ancient religious parchment before, many messages will only be welcome by those with a predilection for nonsense. Imagine the enormous potential of many-to-many communication when we realise how we can use it for more than just poking each other in the ice bucket.
Where’s that towel.
To answer some questions about our home cinema, here are some rambling about: how we chose our equipment, how it’s setup and what we get out of it.
You don’t have to throw a small fortune at technology to realise that: Hi-Fi, computers, mobile phones, whatever are usually somewhere close to out of date before you’ve taken them out of the box. And with this in mind, if I were buying our home cinema today I would choose differently. So just decide how much you want to spend and when you want your system. No point worrying about everything that may be lurking around the corner.
Some of the factors we considered included: budget, environment, source formats, genres and technical support. What factors are important to you?
Budget – This was to be a big present to ourselves. We had some very generous family and friends give us cash when we married. And as parents at home most evenings, this was our version of wild. Remember your money needs to buy all the cabling and fixtures and fittings. You are not just buying the shiny boxes. You want to leave a couple of quid for actual content. After all, what’s the point if you have no beautifully produced media to enjoy?
Environment – we started with measuring our living room. Mrs W wanted the speakers to blend in with our lovely oak tables. It was also high time to replace our beloved Sony Vega CRT which stuck out hideously from the wall. Windows make it difficult to put speakers to the side of our viewing area. But we can mount speakers behind our sofa. So be realistic about what is achievable in your space.
Source materials included: Sky TV movies and sport, DVD collection, and as we have a 3-year-old, Disney’s finest on Blue ray with lossless Dolby True HD in 7.1 channel goodness. We also like to listen to music stored on our NAS in MP3 or Flac. Our favourite CDs are mostly pop, jazz or acoustic. What do you actually listen to and watch the most?
Technical support – while the best deals can usually be had online, the expense and potential complexity of the system justified taking our business more locally. We could not find a way to have Amazon prices and amazing local customer service. So we tried supporting our guy down the road. You need a plan B if it all stops working.
With all this in mind, we found ourselves in the market for a system which would strike a good balance between a dazzling 5.1 home cinema for movies and sport, also a respectable stereo performer for serious music listening. All within our few K ring-fenced for the project. Where are you prepared to make compromises? Which factors are more important to you?
The other specialist requirement worth mentioning separately, is the fact that AV Receivers are becoming increasingly complex, and I wanted to have a screen reader accessible App so I could operate the interface from the iPhone. Lots of AV Receivers do this now, so worth searching your Smartphone’s Apple App Store for the brands of any AV Receivers on your short list.
The AV Receiver is the beating heart of your home cinema. Our AV Receiver is the Onkyo TXNR 809. No shortage of online reviews for this one. The big thing which no one tells you when moving from integrated stereo amps to AV receivers is they are usually physically much larger, a good deal heavier and run significantly warmer requiring greater cooling, in my case necessitating a new rack. The big change in the 2010 2011 AV Receivers was the integration of networking features. You can play digital content directly: from your NAS, streaming services such as Napster and Internet Radio etc. and depending on model, you can remote control from your web browser or smartphone. So you’ll see modern AV receivers described as network receivers. I also auditioned: Denon DHT 1912, Onkyo 609 and seriously considered Cambridge Audio 650R, Marantz SR6004 and a slew of other Denons. Sadly had to rule out the budget busting Arcam AVR400. Onkyo came out on top for us in the sub £800 price range because it sounded punchy and warm with movies and just about held its own with Emma’s Michael Bublé collection. A big win was the fact that I can drive most of its features with a range of apps. If I have any gripes it would be the physical size, at around 44 CM square and 20 CM high plus clearance for cooling. Oh and the lack of Airplay meaning I have to plug the iPhone in to the front USB port. Will need a dock.
I did get a warm fuzzy feeling from the fact that Onkyo have recently sponsored Braille essay writing competitions in Europe and North America.
Our new TV is the Panasonic VT30 50 inch plasma panel. I liked the connectivity including LAN and USB, deep Blacks and aesthetics. It feels very sleek having no plastic bevel round the screen edge, like having a huge iPad on the wall. Negatives include: price, not as bright as LCD, and over specified with Free Sat and Freeview support which we never use, and 3D which is still pointless for most content. We’ve also not made much use of the embedded apps for: YouTube, Skype and BBC iPlayer. I have a lengthy short list of other TVs from Samsung and Sony which were ruled out for various reasons. We managed to blag a Blue ray player and wall bracket in with our TV. And the nice man from the shop came round to help install it. Happy with the TV as a package but if I was starting from scratch I’d possibly go for a slightly less ambitious panel. The only thing a display needs to do well is show content, everything else is just nice to have.
If you decide to wall mount anything, do your homework. I know very bright people who saw their pride and joy smashed on their living room floor because they got the wall mounting wrong. Have many screws driving deep in to supporting joists or even masonry. Don’t expect to hang anything more than 1 or 2kg directly off plasterboard because the weight will just sheer down the wall. My TV bracket is on at least 8 screws which go through the plasterboard and right in to joists, and I lifted my own 90KG weight on the bracket before I dared put the TV up there.
A note about the VT50 and the other 2012 models from Panasonic sporting the Voice Guidance feature. For anyone with enough tech savvy to use the internet, TV now and next info plus 7-day listings are easy to come by. Voice Guidance will only be really useful to me when it speaks Red Button services and Video on Demand including apps like iPlayer. My disappointment at buying Panasonic too early and not having one of the 2012 models was short lived. Good on Panny for making talking listings happen, but anyone who is prepared to buy a premium TV for this feature, really expects much more than simply TV listings to be spoken allowed. Don’t you?
Speakers are Monitor Audio Silver Series. RX6 left and right, RX Centre, RXW12 sub-woofer and RXFX surround. Auditioned Monitor Audio Bronze BX series which didn’t have quite enough sparkle for direct 2 channel music listening. I also tried the Monitor Audio Radius speakers for surround but found them to sound crisp but a bit metallic. So bit the bullet and again blew the budget by going for the Silver series. Bi-wired the RX6 left and right for music listening and wall mounted the RXFX speakers. I stopped short of RX8 with its extra base driver because I was going for a big sub and RX8 plus RXW12 in my room seemed like overkill. If you are splashing out on speakers, what is going to rock it for you in your room with your music?
A word on woofers. Sub woofers reproduce low frequency sounds. The “cross over” is the point where the sub rolls off and your other speakers take over. Lots of debate about where to have your cross over set, I like it quite low so you only really feel the sub when something really goes boom! And that’s the point, the sub is about creating ultra low frequency vibrations which you feel in your legs rather than hear with your ears. Your other speakers will take care of bass guitar solos and other general low frequency work. a sub too far in the corner of your room can boom too much, so some positional experimentation may be required. Very low frequencies at loud volumes travel a hell of a long way and will be felt by your neighbours. A bit like when a heavy truck goes passed your house. So get a great sub, but don’t become a complete arse with it. He says.
The other thing no one tells you about surround sound, 60 percent of a movie’s sound track comes through the centre speaker. and that’s the way it should be. The actors are on the screen and you expect most of the dialog to be heard from that part of the room. So don’t skimp on the centre speaker either.
Configuration – Getting those speakers positioned, AV receiver and display correctly calibrated, even all the cables in the right sockets can all be a ball ache and take ages. As mentioned somewhere above, we decided to pay a little bit more and get everything from a local supplier. This meant they were prepared to help with installation. And the man from the shop used to visit my house if I asked nicely.
In Conclusion – yes I’m smarting a bit from the stupendously large bill. But our system gives us hours of enjoyment and makes us all smile. As a family we are all wowed by the production values in Toy Story or Cars in lossless Dolby True HD. Emma can hear Buble’s swing band sounding punchy and superb in stereo. And I can have the next best thing to going to the match, live football in 5.1 with the crowd all around me.
I had to make some compromises. Audiophile stereo listening being the main one. But how often do I get to do that these days anyway. Maybe that is a separate project for when I have more time.
The point in 5.1 is not having all speakers blasting the same signal. 5.1 is about creating immersive experiences generated by different sounds coming from different parts of the room. If a well-mixed movie playing on some carefully selected and configured kit doesn’t blow your head back or make you go “wow” then you’d be better spending your money elsewhere. If sound effect zinging around your room makes your pulse race then it’s time to go audition some kit!
Cate you really made our dreams come true! The sound track for our big day will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Thank you!
Emma and I married on 16 July, and music played a big part in our day. Our evening reception for 110 guests was held in the dining room of a 16th century country house near Worcester. The music would need to fill the room, but not dominate. We wanted a high quality swing band who would bring a touch of class to proceedings, and still be sufficiently lively to get people up dancing. We wanted some songs that people would recognise, but not be too cheesy or predictable.
We asked around the performers we knew. We spent countless hours searching online. We even tried to assemble our own group of talented musicians. We were starting to feel frustrated that all the music acts we had auditioned were either too rocky, avant-garde, or simply not good enough to meet our high expectations. Then, somehow we stumbled on Cate’s web site, and knew instantly that she was the one.
Cate Cody and the Salty Dogs band is every bit as good in real life as they sound on her show reel. From the moment we first contacted Cate we felt we were in safe hands. If Cate doesn’t reply to your email immediately, the chances are she’s performing or travelling to another gig. So leave it a couple of days. Cate will pay close attention to all your requirements, and will get back to you.
Cate worked with us to select a song for our first dance, and was even willing to consider learning additional numbers, as she was keen to expand her already impressive repertoire.
Cate is the true professional and will think of everything. The band arrived nearly 2 hours before the performance to set up. And even when they started tuning up they sounded completely fresh. An extraordinary achievement as they’d just landed back from a jazz festival in Denmark. Don’t trust any band who doesn’t make sure you have sufficient space, power outlets, and allows sufficient time for setup and tuning.
Cate put us at ease and remained serenely calm, encouraging our other guests to join us, as we giggled our way through our first dance. The American song book is much more extensive than the over-played standards you usually hear at weddings. As well as performing swing favourites you know and love, Cate
Will introduce you to some undiscovered treasures.
The volume of the band and vocals were loud enough to cut through the crowd noise without making conversation difficult. And by the end of the evening the dance floor was full with guest’s young and old having a fantastic time.
Following our wedding, many guests, and even staff at the venue, commented on how wonderful the band was. And asked how we’d found Cate. Make no mistake, Cate will give your event an extra degree of style and sophistication you didn’t think possible.
Cate you helped make our wedding day truly magical. Your performance was the perfect honeymoon preparation, where we danced the nights away aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary II.
A thousand thanks.
Visit Cate’s website at: http://www.jazzcats.co.uk/
Dave and Emma Williams, Worcester
–Message from Cate Cody–
Wow, I’m speechless…you really were the perfect clients! The thought that has gone into writing this is so kind and I’m obviously delighted and also very proud that you were so pleased with the band. I shall forward your comments onto the others we truly enjoyed your wedding because there was such a great atmosphere from the start and everyone made us feels very welcome. We’re really glad we were part of your special day
Thank you again
The Talks screen reader transformed the way blind people think about and use mobile phones. so, along with thousands of others, I was stunned to learn of the untimely death of Torsten Brand, the Talks Product Manager.
Today, the likes of RNIB publish fact sheets detailing the range of solutions available for blind mobile phone users. But a decade ago before Talks there really was very little a blind person could do with a mobile phone other than make and receive calls. For some users this was adequate. However, for Torsten and many other people who are blind, not being able to fully participate in the mobile revolution was unacceptable. With the help of his friend and talented developer Marcus Groeber, Torsten set about tackling the problem.
Most Talks users probably do not realise the number and complexity of the technical challenges with which Torsten and Marcus were confronted in those early days. How to manage speech output so that it did not interfere with the phone’s audio system? How to keep the Talks system requirements low enough in order that the screen reader would run comfortably with limited storage and processing power? How to keep Talks efficient enough so as not to make the other applications on the phone sluggish and unusable? How to hook the phone’s user interface and convey the content to the user in an efficient meaningful manner? Torsten’s deep understanding of these requirements was instrumental in helping solve these and many other technical problems. These solutions remain some of Talks’ greatest assets.
When I first heard about Talks 7 or 8 years ago, or Talx as it was known then, my expectations were relatively low. No one had previously put a screen reader on an off-the-shelf mobile phone handset, while at the same time preserve the phone’s original user interface. The received wisdom at the time seemed to be that a mobile phone screen reader was an unrealistic unachievable fantasy. Torsten dared to dream, decided it was possible, and he and Marcus made it happen.
The elegance of Talks is its simplicity. You don’t learn how to use Talks; you learn how to use the phone on which Talks is running. Great assistive technologies become transparent to the user, allowing him or her to focus on accomplishing the task in hand. Few people really understood this as well as Torsten. With Talks, the vast majority of common tasks are achieved in almost exactly the same way a sighted user would perform them. This means the main stream phone help and support remains relevant, and on those occasions when a sighted friend or family member needs to use your phone for what ever reason, the assistive technology does not have to be switched off.
I first tried a demo of Talks on a trusting friend’s Nokia 6600 phone in a student bedsit in 2003. Within the hour I was contacting my network provider to place my order for a Talks compatible handset. Those early versions were far from perfect, but right away I was able to do all the things my friends were doing with there mobile phones: send and receive text messages, work with contacts and eventually browse the web.
Talks is one of those products that after you have been using it for a couple of days you wonder how you ever lived without it. It was not long before Talks became the first piece of assistive Technology I use in the morning, and the last one I use at night, not to mention many many times in between.
Within a few days of getting Talks I was being contacted by blind people who wanted to know more about this Talks software about which I was so excited. I have lost count of the number of Talks installations I have done for people. But like many blind people at the time, I truly believed that Talks represented a massive step in to the future.
Torsten was a regular at the Sight Village assistive technology exhibitions in the UK. I had to meet the man who had put a voice inside my phone. I remember waiting in a long line of people eager to meet Torsten. It seemed to take forever to reach the front, not least because the line was so long, but also because Torsten was taking the time to patiently answer questions from enthusiastic users.
On meeting Torsten in person, I found him to be a gentle giant of a man with a deep rich voice and distinctive booming laugh. Torsten was clearly proud of Talks but always willing to pay close attention to feedback from users. Torsten was not afraid of constructive criticism. Years later, I was to learn first hand about Torsten’s no compromise commitment to quality, and his persistent efforts to get the very best from developers.
One of my favourite Torsten mantras is “the user guide is the specification”.
Torsten’s generosity with his time lead to my recording several interviews with him for ACB Radio’s Main Menu – a technology show that I presented and produced for a number of years before working for Dolphin.
Torsten probably never really knew just how many lives were touched by his work. Talks users can be found in dozens of countries around the world. And countless blind people without the means to purchase a full Talks licence simply use the Talks ten minute demo.
When I joined Dolphin in 2006, Talks was one of the products I was raving about. A year later Torsten, Steve Palmer (Dolphin’s Chairman) and I met over a curry in Birmingham as Dolphin began talking seriously about collaborating on Talks for Windows Mobile. Eventually contracts were signed and Talks for WM became available through Verizon in the US.
For the past two years, rarely has a week gone by when I have not had either phone or email communication with Torsten. I will continue to learn from Torsten’s work, miss our weekly meetings, Torsten’s attention to detail, but most importantly Torsten’s unwavering refusal to ever give up fighting for the best possible user experience.
Thank you Torsten. May your legacy live on.
Persimmon homes seem to think so. Each type of house design on the new Hamilton Grange Development in Worcester appears to have been named after an ancient British castle: Lancaster, Manorbier, Newark, Powderham, Richmond and Tretower.
As far as our budget is concerned, many of these designs may as well be actual castles. But, unbelievably we have now exchanged contracts on a brand new little Persimmon castle of our very own! We are due to complete at the end of Feb. It’s so close now, I can almost taste it. But we’ve been here before, and I’m trying to contain my jubilation for a couple more weeks before we get our mitts on that all important bunch of keys.
There is a lot to be said for and against new builds. On the one hand, new builds: tend to be more energy Efficient, have no upward chain, can be customised to suit our requirements and have 10-year warranty against structural problems. On the other hand: less house for the money, fewer fixtures and fittings as well as horror stories about other defects aka snags. That said, we have at least 4 friends who have recently bought older houses, and they all seem up to their ears with: plasterers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters etc. I’m sure it’ll all come good for them in the end, and I’m confident our new-build won’t be completely without it’s problems.
So which design do you think we went for? Do you care? NA me neither. Ultimately, it’s about doing what feels right for one’s family. Staying in the apartment with Emma, Arlo and Eden was never going to work. A month after Arlo’s birth, that’s all too obvious. Known and unknown problems not withstanding, this feels absolutely bob on.
Amongst the sleepless nights, endless feeds and nappy changes, we stumbled across this excellent local supplier of quality baby paraphernalia. A refreshing change from the usual high street suspects, Mother Care et al.
Arlo is now 18 days old. The Bugaboo Bea pushchair is working out well, yours truly has been getting his hands dirty with his share of nappy changes, Arlo’s birth has been registered, and the flow of visitors has finally reduced to a dull roar.
At 11:58GMT on Thursday our little boy was born by emergency cesarean at the Birmingham Women's hospital. He had been a bit distressed and wrapped up in his cord. He ways 4lb and measures 48 cm in length. So he is being observed on the special care baby unit 2 keep him warm for the first day or 2. Mother and baby are visiting each other regularly and should be reunited in the next few hours. We have named him Arlo David Williams. Arlo means fortified hill. Thanks to everyone for all your messages of support. We hope to eventually catch up with everyone individually. Cheers.
Just one of a gazillion decisions Emma and I will need to take in the days and decades ahead. It did not take us very long to realise that this parenting lark is a bit of a mine field!
We had a superb xmas and new year thank you very much for asking. Themes included: food and drink, plenty of long walks to work off some of the food and drink, oh and a couple of rounds of Scrabble to make sure our brains didn’t completely seize up. We also made the most of the opportunity to enjoy a few lie-ins in advance of baby feeding and nappy changing at the inevitable 3AM.
Our 2009 promises to be a busy one. Baby should be on his way within the next few days/weeks. On the house front we’re subject to contract … again.
Before any of that though, I’ve got to take care of a xmas tree shitting pine neegles all over the carpet.
Right I’m off to eat Jam Roly-poly and watch Lark Rise to Candleford.
Top of the year to you and your’s.