Saturday, April 19, 2014

Andrew's True Reviews: Spring 2014

"Andrew, I want to buy something! Tell me some things you bought and write reviews so I know if I should buy them too!"


Brand: Dunno
Product: Anti-snoring nose ring thingy

True Review: This little piece of plastic looks like a sex toy from some awesome porn, but its makers claim that if you wedge it into your nostrils it will stop you snoring. Ludicrous, surely? Except it seems to work: since I started using it, I haven't listened to a single complaint about snoring.

I bought it at a pound shop in England somewhere. If you can't find it in your area, I'm providing an Amazon link (where it gets pretty terrible reviews, so I suppose it doesn't work for everyone.)

If you snore and can spare two pounds on a thing that might cure you, click the link! It probably won't work if all the cocaine you take has worn away your septum.

Brand: Beurer 
Product: BF-800 Diagnostic Scales

The scales
Still quite a lot of subcutaneous fat to shift

True Review: I had my eye out for a deal on either this or the Withings WS-50. Both are cool scales which estimate your body fat and muscle mass and transmit the data to your smartphone.

The build quality is really nice. It's like standing on the prow of an oligarch's yacht. When Jen's not around I stand on it, naked, and extend my arms out wide saying, "I'm the king of the world!" If you can't picture that clearly, let me know and I'll commission an artist to draw it.

I bought it because weight alone isn't a good measure of my health. I lost 3 or 4 kilos through not drinking alcohol in January, but had no idea if that was fat loss or muscle loss. As Peter Drucker said, "What gets measured gets managed," and now I can 'measure' my fat (which is on a slightly upward trend just now because I haven't been able to exercise for a couple of weeks).

Summary: Buy (but wait for special offers).

Brand: Samsung
Product: Syncmaster 2493HM

True Review: I picked up a monitor second-hand for 50 francs (33 pounds). Being 24", it makes my old 20" look pretty cramped. Imagine you used to share a prison cell with a burly arsonist but after you shivved him they moved you to solitary and it's 30 percent bigger.

On this particular monitor, the sound comes out tinny, the menu keys were designed by a sociopath, and the headphones jack should be anywhere instead of where they put it. Despite that, I'd recommend it to anyone - it's a really good monitor and I was lucky to get the price I did.

The big thing is having twin screens. Why did I wait so long? Whyyyyy? For the price of two large Dominos pizzas I've transformed my desk into that workstation from The Matrix. I can have last year's spreadsheet on the right screen while editing this year's on the left, or track my stocks while checking my emails. I'm lying, of course, because what I really use it for is watching dirty movies while playing DOS-based games, or watching England lose at football and cricket simultaneously. 

Please go and buy a cheap second monitor as soon as possible. You'll love it!


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Speak Native English in Seconds

Learning English as a foreign language? Finding it hard?

STOP wasting time and money.

Improve your English in seconds by reading this short article!

Native speakers say 'literally' all the time, regardless of its true meaning. 

Say things like this:

(Having just dropped your ice cream)
"That is literally the worst thing that has ever happened to me."

(You were surprised by the ending of a movie.) 
"My brain literally exploded."

Note - the more uneducated and stupid you sound, the more native-like you'll seem.

Bad Adverbs Can Be Good
Bad adverbs seem like bad words. But native speakers use them for positive things.

"That pizza was ridiculously good." = very good

"Those Swedish yoga women are stupidly hot." = very attractive, or running a fever

Stupidly hot - perfect for porning

Native speakers abuse nouns like I abuse all-you-can-eat buffets. They take a noun and use it as a verb. This is very stupid, and very effective.

"I went Guinnessing after class." = I went to drink Guinness after class.

"Are you Bonding on Thursday?" = Are you going to see the new James Bond movie on Thursday?

Should Of
Only native speakers would mindlessly butcher the language of Milton, of Shakespeare, to this extreme. Don't write 'should of' in your First Certificate exam, but do use it on the sidestreets of Manchester or when giving expert analysis on a sports broadcast. You'll fit right in.

"He should of passed to Rooney."
"I wouldn't of asked you to come if I'd knowed you'd be porning in my spare room."

And That
Do you find yourself running out of vocabulary mid-sentence? Try using 'and that' - it's the spoken equivalent of 'et cetera', but even easier to use.

* Instead of:
"This weekend I intend to go to the shops, partly to indulge in window shopping, partly to scout for discounts on goods and comestibles."

You can say:
"I'm going shopping and that."

* Instead of:
"The reason you have to say 'waking' in that sentence is because the preceding 'to' functions as a preposition."

You can say:
"It's just grammar and that."


Thursday, March 06, 2014

Nice Things About Switzerland #7: Fountains

"You can drink from the fountains," I was told on my second day in Zurich.
"I'm astonished," said my face.
"I know it's hard for us expats to believe. But it's true. The water is clean and pure and you can drink from any fountain throughout Switzerland!"
"But..." I said. "But. But."

But there was no but! It was right! I started going for jogs and planning my route according to where the fountains were. No need to carry a water bottle - just swig wherever, whenever. Fountains are also perfect places to wash away evidence after you've done a crime. Bonus.

'Drink me' said the fountain at the bottom of the rabbit-hole. 'No way, I'll get leprosy,' said Alice

Swiss people react strangely when I express my gratitude for this amazing luxury, because they can't imagine a world where you can't drink from fountains. 

I must sound like someone raving about shoes. "I was walking on glass and pebbles and hurting myself and then I found these things you can put on. They're called shoes! They protect my feet. Oh! And they make me taller!" 

But then, the German word for 'shoe' is 'foot-coffin', so I don't care if they think I'm the weird one.

During my childhood on the side-streets of Manchester, I dared not go near a fountain lest I contract leprosy or tetanus. So I appreciate Swiss fountains very much.

Here's a nice site with some of the photos I should have included in this post: "Discovering Zurich, one fountain at a time"


Monday, February 24, 2014

Andrew's True Reviews:

My girlfriend, Jen, started a new business recently. She imported a mechanical horse (or 'dressage simulator' if you're feeling fancy) with which she gives horse riding and Alexander Technique lessons.

She went through all the stages of starting a business - finding an office, redecorating the office, redecorating the office again, having a furious row with her boyfriend about the menu bar on her new website. You know, the usual things.

She also needed a logo: "It's going to cost 4000 francs," she whinged. "And it'll take ages and waah."

4000 francs is a month's income for me. It's 182 medium Domino's pizzas. It's 400 tubs of Cookie Dough ice-cream. Too much! I had an idea: "Try a crowdsourcing website. You'll get hundreds of entries from talented designers around the world. It's cheap, fun, there's bound to be some good ones, and I can write a blog about it."

"No," she said, stamping her size 2 feet, "I'm not going to do that. Ever ever ever."

Crowdsourcing a Logo: Jen's Experience

Jen (and her sister) chose instead of She sat on my sofa and wrote a creative brief that was brutally germanic: "We demand the highest quality. You will obey our instructions. The solution we choose will be final." 

"Okay snuggle sausage," I said, easing the laptop away from her like a cool cop coaxing a cleaver from the clutches of a clumsy kidnapper, "Maybe just tell me what you want and I'll write it in a nice way."

"The logo should be modern," she said, "but classical. Fresh, but earthy. Suffused with bold humility. Distinctive, understated, holistically integrated. It should say 'Reitsimulator Schweiz,' radically transform society's understanding of the word 'logo', and it should be horsey but not too horsey."

I converted that into something more realistic and wrote it in an approachable way. Next we had to give more info about our inspirations. Jen said she liked Roger Federer's logo and something with that kind of elegance and simplicity would be ideal.

Once the brief was complete we had to decide how much to spend. Jen said her budget was 1,000 dollars, which I thought was on the high side. The website ate a chunk, leaving about 600 dollars for the winner. That's loads! Artists are supposed to be poor. Desperation makes their work better.

Entries came pouring in almost as soon as we submitted the brief. A lot of the early ones were awful, and I started getting worried. Also, they all looked exactly like the Roger Federer logo. Gah! People are stupid. I changed the brief to stop that.

Jen looked at the first dozen logos, shrieked "NO!" and started pounding the keyboard with her tiny dwarf hands. I read a fairy tale out loud to put her to sleep, then started writing supportive, constructive feedback to the designers. This allowed them to see where they were going wrong and they could re-work their ideas and try again. When Jen woke up she saw the wisdom in what I was doing and claimed it had been her idea.

Of course, that made the process much more time-consuming, especially as there were over 200 entries by the end. But whenever we wrote something more than once, we added it to the brief so that all designers could see it.

After a couple of weeks this came in:

"But," Jen spluttered, "They've ignored everything I said! I said I didn't want a prancing horse - the simulator can't prance, gambol, or frolic. And I was quite specific that it should say 'Reitsimulator' and nothing else. Robohorse?! This logo is the exact opposite of what I want! Oh, wait. Wait wait wait. You did this, didn't you?"

Yes. It cost me 5 dollars from It's actually much better than most of the logos we got through Crowdspring. (I asked the designer to do lasers and smoke coming from the horse but he said it was too much work.)

A lot of the Crowdspring entries were dross, but the best ones were pretty good. We put them in our focus group page - it's a link where you can send 8 entries to friends and get feedback. Nice feature, but Jen (with her sister) had already chosen the one they liked.

The winning designer was very pliant in terms of making changes to fonts and colours. The runner-up was even more helpful, and Jen sent him some money for his time and effort.

Without further ado, the winning logo. See the negative space? See it?

It looks even better on Jen's website.

I'd say the crowdsourcing process was easy and interesting and I'd use it again. If it doesn't turn up a usable logo you get 100% of your money back, so there's no risk. It all happened pretty quickly, too - it was all done and dusted within 14 days. So if you're looking for something quick, cheap, or both, it's the way to go.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

7 Steps to Password Safety


Wow! I said to myself. This message, coming from a trusted friend of mine, intrigued the hell out of me. I clicked the link. It was all spam! My friend apologised and said she'd been hacked. "You should change your password," I told her. "Yes, I did, I'm safe now," she replied.

The NEXT DAY she sent out the exact message with the exact same link. Hacked again!

This article was written for her benefit. I sent her a draft and she said, "Yeah, it's not very funny and it doesn't make me want to install password software."

Go figure.

Why My Easy-to-Hack Friend is Idiotic About Passwords

Until a few days ago, my online safety was laughable. Not laughable in a good way, like my joke about Hitler's favourite boy band. Laughable in a bad way, like "You've used the same password on every website you've ever been on" kind of laughable.

My password used to look like this:


Now I have a different one for every site, and they look like this:


Looks hard to guess? Correct. It would take a Commodore 64 over ten trillion years to hack that. By then, the sun will have exploded and killed us all and if there is still a universe of some sort, the only lifeform will be the ghost of French smugness, which is eternal.

Being careless and lazy about passwords is stupid. You're making it easy for people to ruin your reputation, steal your identity, and spend your money.

I knew there was password management software out there. They do two things: they generate impossible-to-guess passwords and store them in a database which is more or less unbreakable. Unbreakable even to freedom-hating governments who spy on their citizens.

I've wanted to get a grip on my password situation for a long time, but it seemed like too much work. When I forced myself to sit and do it I found it was easy enough. I showed my girlfriend how to do it and wrote this guide based on that conversation.

7 Steps to Online Peace of Mind

Step 1.
Go to and download the version you need. Jen and I wanted to make our PCs safer, so we started with:

Binary bundle for Windows 2000, XP, Vista and 7

Jen: "This website is ugly."

Step 2.
Once that's installed and launched, you get a somewhat unhelpful screen.

Jen: "Ugh. This is worse than the website. What is this, 1996?"
Me: "Stop moaning. Just click that icon on the left. No! The other left!"

(I'm told the look and feel of the Mac version is much nicer.)

Step 3.
Next you need to choose your master password. This is the most important thing! This is the one password that rules them all.

Jen: "What do I do?"
Me: "Choose an awesome password. Don't let me see. You know, in case they torture me."
Jen: "I'm bad at passwords. All my passwords have the word Unicorn in."
Me: "All right, I'll choose one for you. I'm changing the vowels into numbers and making sure there's a mix of upper and lower case. Okay. Memorise this."


Jen: "You're such a child."

Step 4.
Start building your database.

Me: "Log in to Amazon."
Jen: "Done."
Me: "Okay, go to the password change bit."
Jen: "Right."
Me: "You need to know your current password to change it."
Jen: "It's PinkUnicorn2."
Me: "Sigh. So let's generate a new one. Go to the Keepass thing. Choose Entries, then Add New Entry."
Jen: "Waah! It looks complicated. Let's quit and watch Deal or No Deal."
Andrew: "Stop being a baby. Click the generate button. You can use the eye button above it to show the password."

Jen: "Jesus. This is even worse than the one before. What's all this stuff?"
Me: "It's all about how complicated you want the password to be. Just click generate."

Jen (eyes boggling unattractively): "24 characters long?"
Me: "The longer the better."
Jen: "Giggle."
Me: "Some websites have limits on how long it can be, which is beyond stupid. And some don't like special characters. Amazon likes safe passwords, so just copy and paste that new password onto their website."
Jen: "It says it's changed."
Me: "Ace. Now fill in the rest of the Keypass form. Click ok."

Jen: "Done."
Me: "Log out of Amazon. Go back to the login screen."
Jen: "Wait! I don't remember the new password."
Me: "Don't stress. Right-click on the Keepass screen where it says Amazon."

Jen: "Oh... That's clever. I get it now."

Without further prompting, she used the Ctrl+C function to copy the 24-character password and Ctrl+V to paste it into Amazon. When her browser asked if she wanted to save the new password, she said no.

Jen: "So I have to load this Keepass thing everytime I want to use Amazon?"
Me: "Yes."
Jen: "Well, it's a little bit more work, but not much. It's just ten seconds, really, isn't it? It's probably worth it."

Step 5.
Keep building your database of new passwords, but don't let your browser store them.

For a couple of days, every time I went to a website with a login, I changed the password and added it to my database.

A lot of those ones I let the browser store the new password, because now that each password is different, I don't see the point of adding inconvenience to my life. The ones stored under 'money' - including the many, many charity websites I donate to - I keep more secure.

Me: "You're using Firefox, which is as unsafe as all the other browsers. Do you want to see something terrifying? Go to the 'settings' panel and find the passwords section. Good. Now click the 'show passwords' thing. Now I can see all the passwords you've used from all the websites you've been on. Jesus, you weren't joking about the Unicorn thing!"
Jen: "This is bullshit! Anyone could get all these passwords in, like, a minute!"
Me: "Yep. But not when you switch them over to the Keepass database. Just make sure you don't let the browser store important passwords."

Step 6.
Make a backup of the database. You could put it on a usb stick, or on your phone. For iPhone users, go to the App Store and get MiniKeePass, for free.

Done? When you plug your phone into your PC and iTunes opens, go to the App bit where it shows all the apps you've got on your phone. Scroll down and you'll see something like this:

From there, use the Add... button to locate the database you made.

Jen: "I can't find the database! Danger zone!"
Me: "It's just because you haven't saved it yet."
Jen: "Oh, right. Good point. What filename should I give it?"
Me: "JensPasswords or whatever. No big deal."

Once you've synced your phone to iTunes, open the MiniKeePass app on the phone. You'll see your database there, just like on your PC. Use your code to unlock it. When you click on Amazon and on Password, it automatically copies it, so you can paste it into the app or website. But mostly this is just a backup.

Step 7.
You are now safe. Completely and utterly safe. So you can go ahead and be complacent.

Jen: "You don't need this bit, do you? This is just because you want 7 points instead of 6. I'm right, aren't I? Aren't I?"

Relationship-saving disclaimer: While Jen accepts the need to present her as being computer illiterate for the purpose of entertainment and education, she would like me to point out that she is amazing at computers and technology, visited Xenox PARC before Steve Jobs, and can type at over 15 words per minute.