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Mr Ulster (Belfast, Northern Ireland)

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A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary
A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary
by Alain De Botton
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars The universality of our airport experiences, 14 Jan 2014
Perhaps poignantly after just returning from a long and splendid transatlantic Christmastime holiday, and getting back into routine in the return to work, I finished Alain de Botton's book, A Week at the Airport.

A Week at the Airport is a short and compact book ("Slender enough to pack in your carry-on", Daily Mail). It can be considered an addendum of sorts of his previous book, The Art of Travel (from which one learns that de Botton is a home bird, really; see my separate review).

I've always liked Alain de Botton's use of illustrations and imagery interspersed with his narratives. In this case, Richard Baker adds wonderful value with his insightful photographs.

A Week at the Airport is just that -- the chief executive of BAA granted the author unrestricted access throughout the world's busiest airport, Heathrow.

"In such lack of constraints, I felt myself to be benefitting from a tradition wherein the wealthy merchant enters into a relationship with an artist fully prepared for him to behave like an outlaw; he does not expect good manners, he knows and is half delighted by the idea that the favoured baboon will smash his crockery."

Thankfully de Botton does behave himself and doesn't offend the airport staff, or perhaps more importantly, the security folk at the Border Agency.

The book is divided into four sections, reflecting the main dimensions of our airport experience -- Approach, Departures, Airside and Arrivals.

I like de Botton's philosophical insights into the otherwise mundane, or at least those aspects of daily life that we usually don't think twice about.

For example, airport hotels. Even with their poetic menus, which de Botton does his best to elevate, an airport hotel is functionary; unlike their countryside siblings, you don't select an airport hotel for its environmental surroundings.

Though there's no harm in trying to appeal to aesthetic beauty. Terminal 5 "wanted to have a go" at replicating the experience of arriving at Jerusalem's elaborate Jaffa Gate, to welcome those who have travelled great distances to the promise and prospect of a new country.

But baggage retrieval and finding your car in the parking lot (or silent taxi transfer) quickly erases such euphoria.

de Botton's strength is inserting the human condition in every aspect of life. Lest you think he doesn't really recommend airport travel, de Botton is an unfailing romantic (and thankfully so). When he describes our human encounters -- in this case with hotel staff, fellow passengers, border control agents, and those we're departing and reuniting with -- de Botton evokes the universality of our existence. At least those of us who have ever experienced airports.

Touching Distance
Touching Distance
Price: 3.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Taking bullets for hope and a better future, 1 Oct 2013
This review is from: Touching Distance (Kindle Edition)
Reading this book was always going to have a special meaning to me, as my wife had a stroke about two years ago. Like James and Bev, my wife and I are writing a book together about our experience. We honestly came up with the same chapter layout as them -- alternative narrations.

In these types of post-tragedy biographies, there are introductory chapters of the characters' backgrounds. A get-to-know-you before the injury sequence. This is fine, but in Touching Distance, the full first half of the book is a repetitive account of Cracknell's numerous athletic achievements. He is a very competitive individual; I get it.

At the moment of his near fatal injury, the engagement with the reader much improves, perhaps because both Bev and James are describing their separate perspectives of the events unfolding before them.

I write as a carer for a stroke survivor, so I have an empathy with Bev's words. But I can attest that my wife would sympathise with James's.

Bev describes learning the new vocabulary of brain injury as "taking bullets" that she would have to carry for the rest of her life. This is true.

And this unwelcomed circumstance reflects the wider dimension of changed lives. At times Bev tells James, "You're not the man I married" and "I still miss James." James has told the world, "I'm no longer James Cracknell." His description of how the injury has affected his outlook is very honest and in my opinion, the most compelling part of his story.

Both mention how it's the invisible dimension of brain injury that is more difficult to deal with. This is true, too.

Case in point was James's description of neuropsychologist and psychiatrist tests:

"They only knew me as a patient post-accident but not the person I was or what I was capable of before the accident. So how could they impose these ceilings on my recovery based on results from generalised tests?"

We have the same complaint. In fact, neither of us were ever asked about our personalities or habits pre-injury. I still don't understand scientifically how anyone could make predictions without examining what made a person tick before an injury.

James also recalled a qualified compliment he received after giving television commentary: "That was really good," he was told, "especially for someone with a brain injury." Like anyone with a disability, James said that he wants to be judged as a person, not someone with a brain injury.

With me present, a specialist once told my wife that before speaking she could tell strangers that she has had a stroke (to explain why her voice isn't as clear). I counter-suggested that she should not, to reduce the likelihood of her being patronised. Unlike James, my wife is not famous, so it has been easier for her to present herself as herself, and not someone with a brain injury.

Both James and Bev are told that the majority of marriages fail when one has had a brain injury. It is easy to see why. Bev describes how the dynamics of a marriage of mutuality changes to one of physical and mental dependency. It's not easy to deal with, I know. And James acknowledges this, in describing his marriage now as more of a business partnership. Both want their relationship to move back towards the centre.

Bev tells of the experience of a new friend whose marriage came undone three years after her husband's accident. Bev asked what was the final straw? "His lack of confidence. It killed me. I couldn't live with it." Bev said that she knew what she meant.

Thankfully, my wife still has confidence: "If we've survived this, we can survive anything ... it's the ultimate challenge."

So although Touching Distance isn't the best written prose, like dealing with an unwanted challenge, it is worth persisting with to reach a positive conclusion and hope for a better future.

Apple iPhone 4 / 4S Black Wallet Case Cover Includes Screen Protector, Touch Screen Stylus And Polishing Cloth
Apple iPhone 4 / 4S Black Wallet Case Cover Includes Screen Protector, Touch Screen Stylus And Polishing Cloth
Offered by StarAccessories
Price: 3.15

44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Cut out for camera lens misaligned/not wide enough, 18 Feb 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Case does provide protection. Plastic casing a very tight fit for the phone, arguably too tight as it is difficult to remove the phone thereafter. Cut out for volume controls also not generous enough, little room for error while the right side has a large cut out for no purpose. Worse offense is the cut out on the exterior to enable taking photos while phone is in case -- it is not properly aligned (or wide enough) and causes shadowing in your photos! Of course, you could take the phone out to take photos, but see above. Wish case designer had spent a little more consideration. I'm now looking for alternative clam shell case.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 22, 2013 9:55 PM GMT

Philips SPA5210B/10 Notebook SoundBar
Philips SPA5210B/10 Notebook SoundBar

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Self powered stereo sound excellently designed, 1 Oct 2011
This was an impulsive purchase during the weekly Tesco grocery shop -- don't really need it but promise of improved laptop audio experience compelled me to give it a try.

Not disappointed. A soft screw-clamp on the back of the unit easily fits any reasonable thickness of laptop screen. Genius is that they are powered by a neatly tucked USB cable -- no batteries or power adapter required. The speaker unit can also be used self-standing, off the laptop.

Sound quality is fine for what this offers. I couldn't find any specs, but it fills a room 2-metres square comfortably (i.e bedroom); probably pushing it for a 3-metre square room (i.e. living room). I'm guessing 2 X 5 watts.

My ability to distinguish fidelity is poor (one of my ears is near tone deaf at certain frequencies, thankfully not speech), but the speakers near cover the full tonal range. Unsurprisingly, bass gets distorted at high volumes. But considering there's no subwoofer at all, this is not the device to blast hip-hop music for a dancefloor.

Instead, as you'll be sitting less than two feet in front of this thing, it will be the richness you'll enjoy while listening to your music or videos.
And the included carry case makes it very convenient for transporting. This will be coming with me in my journeys, helped by its self-powering feature.

Really not much more to think about -- a relatively easy purchase decision at the price.

Silent Scream
Silent Scream
Offered by adrians_records
Price: 7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Richard Marx - Silen Screen [Single], 2 Jan 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Silent Scream (Audio CD)
1. Silent Scream (LP Version)
2. Right Here Waiting (Live)
3. So Into You
4. Keep Coming Back

Obaku By Ingersoll Gents Cream Dial Brown Leather Strap Watch
Obaku By Ingersoll Gents Cream Dial Brown Leather Strap Watch
Offered by Clocktraders UK
Price: 98.06

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stands out from the crowd, 3 Oct 2010
For my birthday, my wife kindly gave me a brown leather strapped Obaku watch by Ingersoll (see my user photos). She asked me what I wanted, and I replied that I genuinely needed a new watch. We went to some local department stores, and I nearly settled for a John Rocha watch at Debenham's, but none had a "wow" factor and she said she wanted to get me something that would last.

Filtered through thousands of watches available at, and narrowed it down to a short list of six, with surprisingly many from Timex.

But this Obaku watch by Ingersoll stood out from the crowd.

First, its appearance. It looks like a watch that costs hundreds of pounds, but was actually less than one hundred.

Pleasing aesthetics. Analogue day and date feature.

Note that the face is more cream colour than white in their promotional photos.

What really persuaded me was a feature it calls "Titan Glass", which apparently is the toughest type of glass used in the watch industry. Even stronger than sapphire crystal, which is the type used on my Oris watch that I can attest has so far no scratches on it.

In contrast, all the other watches in this price range and that made my short list were all made of ordinary glass. No contest.

And a lifetime warranty on the Japanese built watch mechanism? With the others only offering a one-year warranty? Sold.

I've been wearing my new watch for a few weeks now, and I love it. Looks smart. Very comfortable, soft leather strap.

Here's to many years of watch satisfaction!

by Tony Macaulay
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The only pacifist paperboy in Belfast, so I was, 31 Aug 2010
This review is from: Paperboy (Paperback)
Tony Macaulay is a respected professional community relations and youth worker based in Belfast. For example, he has written independently, "A discussion paper proposing a five phase process for the removal of 'peace walls' in Northern Ireland".

This book is his story of being a 12-year-old paperboy, living in the Shankill area of West Belfast. I, too, was a 12-year-old paperboy, but that's where my shared experience starts and ends.

Tony so well tells his story. It is actually difficult for adults to write in the prose of childhood. The retrospective voice is usually readily apparent. But here in Paperboy, you really do see the world from this boy's experiences.

It's a world of not quite comprehending the sectarianism and violence around you, and doing your best to get on with what really matters to most 12-year-old boys -- your mates, your music, and earning some pocket money to spend on your girlfriend.

And just like a youngster, there are key words that regularly reappear in the dialogue -- Sharon Burgess, "the only pacifist paperboy in Belfast", Bay City Rollers, "so I was".

Indeed, Tony writes in the local vernacular so well that the only criticism could be that he didn't include a glossary! This Yank has lived here long enough to not need one for Paperboy (!), and some phrases like, "God love the wee dote" probably pass without translation, but me thinks Tony should provide one for the American edition ("Och, ballicks!"). And/or subtitles when the film comes out!

Amidst all the humour, though, there is the reality of the environment that Paperboy grows up in. He notices more and more "peace walls" -- "... we were brilliant at walls in Belfast -- they were going up everywhere, higher and higher, all around me".

It's actually his dad who says to a neighbour who is demanding an even more walls, "Did you never think that it might be our side that's bein' walled in?"

And 35 years on, we have made little progress on dismantling our walls in Northern Ireland, whether physically or metaphorically. May Paperboy encourage more of us to put more effort into this.

Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know
Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know
by Tim Judah
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.59

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The first book to read in the path of unravelling the threads of politics and history in Kosovo, 4 April 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I was once asked if I thought the Northern Ireland conflict was difficult to comprehend. Not really, I replied. What confounded me was that as so many people within Northern Ireland understood the various factors involved, why work towards any resolution took so long.

Put another way, I found comprehending the geo-political situation of former Yugoslavia more difficult. For most of its former republics, resolutions were via the bloody wars of the 1990s.

And then there's Kosovo, with its independence declared in 2008, but how much resolved?

For the sake of my day job, I had to get a good grasp of the situation of Kosovo. A good friend endorsed my short-listed choice of Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Tim Judah, Balkan Correspondent for The Economist.

In the Author's Note, Judah says that his book is to give general readers a straightforward introduction. He well achieves this. But a "general reader" who has some education in international relations, or at least is an avid reader of The Economist, will find the introduction that much easier to absorb. This is not because Kosovo is not easily accessible; it is. But there is a good amount of history and culture to take in the book's concise 160 pages.

Judah does well in the first two chapters to provide cultural and historical overviews of Albanians and Serbs. Of course, this has to be a little superficial in such a generalist book. But an important highlight is that for Albanians, and particularly for those residing in Kosovo, it was language more than the role of the church that influences their nationalism. This contributed to a delayed nation-building -- surrounding peoples and places having several hundred years' head start -- with its own consequences.

We are told how the Serbs see Kosovo as their Jerusalem (p. 18), with the full poem provided, "The Downfall of the Serbian Empire". What interests me is that this is not the only contested place in the world with a Jerusalem-status, the sense of birthright and/or redemption.

The chapters are the right length, covering the essentials while moving you along to the next episode.

As in other contested places, the education system plays an important, often crucial role. For some decades, Albanians enjoyed an Albanian-language education (but while still needing to learn Serbian). However, when Serbian authorities clamped down on this in 1991, an underground, parallel system was created (p. 73). The consequence was that hereafter young Kosovo Albanians would be instilled with more nationalist thinking than under the "brotherhood and unity" era of Yugoslavia. For me, the significance is whether ethnic-based education is part of a wider whole or a particular sect.

Likewise, Judah describes the re-establishment of the Kosovo police service, one of the notable achievements (p. 95), moving from no service at all in 1999 to one comprising over 7,000 officers (6,082 Albanian; 746 Serbs; 414 others) in 2007. However, with Kosovo independence, retaining an integrated, singular police service has become more of a challenge. Here, I hope there are applicable lessons from the recent years of the reform of policing in Northern Ireland.

Judah explains one particularly curiosity -- multiple international calling codes (p. 99). Essentially, in the break up of Yugoslavia, Serbia retained code +381. For cell/mobile phones, new Kosovo wasn't going to use that nor the Serbian +063, so it acquired underused Monaco +377. I can attest that in areas such as Mitrovica, individuals who need to contact both Albanians and Serbs will carry two mobile phones/SIM cards.

There is a good description of the Ahtisaari Plan (setting out Kosovo's future, sans independence but with "supervised independence") (Chapter 10). While this plan was blocked by the UN Security Council, all EU members backed it and proceeded to establish an International Civilian Office (ICO), to deal with matters of law and headed by an International Civilian Representative (ICR).

Then, after Kosovo's declaration of independence, the EU replied by providing a Special Representative (EUSR), responsibilities which include "promoting overall EU coordination and coherence in Kosovo".

The thing is, the ICR and EUSR are the same person: Pieter Feith. On one hand, Feith's remit is to the EU's unanimous consent to the Ahtisaari Plan, while on the other hand he serves as EUSR even though not all EU members recognise Kosovo's independence. This conundrum is not lost on the local population.

Judah also succinctly puts the Kosovo situation in a global context of international relations (Chapter 12). Barring the wars that took place in the region in the 1990s, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, for the most part, reflected the disintegration of the Soviet Union, in that there was a reverting to previously existing republics (the "R" in USSR). Except Kosovo, which was not a pre-existing republic. Its declaration of independence, or at least EU semi-protectorate de facto status, is an unprecedented situation for the EU, which must proceed intelligently as other nations/subregions express their self-determination.

There's clearly more to say on this matter, and Judah's book is not the place for it. Indeed, while those with deeper knowledge of any particular dimension of the Kosovo scene won't find sustenance by Judah's overview, I found it an ideal primer and very useful in my subsequent visit. I sincerely recommend Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know as the first book to read in the path of unravelling the threads of politics and history in Kosovo.

Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father (A Story of Race and Inheritance)
Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father (A Story of Race and Inheritance)
by Barack Obama
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sincere coming-of-age story, 28 Jan 2010
Difficult to add any enlightened review of a book read by so many. I enjoyed reading this pre-candidate autobiography, perhaps because of my personal hobby of genealogy. Obama provides insights to his personality, through the story of his own family history, which spans several continents and cultures.

To pick just one episode, as a school-age boy, he met his father for the first time (after some years of separation). Obama was embarrassed by bravado of the Old Man, and just wanted to get along, not stand out, among his childhood peers. Only later did his father's demeanour and behaviour intrigue him to discover more.

Brought forward, Obama recalls a trip that he and his sister Auma made, while in Kenya, to visit their father's youngest child, George:

"From the car, we watched George return to his friends, quickly indistinguishable from the others with round heads and knobby knees who were chasing a scuffed football through the grass. I found myself suddenly remembering then my first meeting with the Old Man, the fear and discomfort that his presence had caused me, forcing me for the first time to consider the mystery of my own life. And I took comfort in the fact that perhaps one day, when he was older, George, too, might want to know who his father had been, and who his brothers and sisters were, and that if he ever came to me I would be there for him, to tell him the story I knew."

Obama could have as easily been talking about his own children. Thus, he comes full circle with his father-son relationship, and is ready for the next generation. Otherwise known as signs of adulthood and maturity.

And that is why I enjoyed Dreams from my Father. Coming-of-age books are good reads, all the better when written with such sincerity. Let us see more of them.

HP Deskjet D1660 Printer
HP Deskjet D1660 Printer

78 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Suitable as portable printer, 30 Nov 2009
There are times when I need to have portable printing during my business travels. Some hotels are set up for this, others aren't. In most cases, it's convenient to bring along my own printing solution.

I had a Canon BJC-80 that I used several years ago. It packed in, and I had to find a replacement. The Canon Pixma iP100 Portable Inkjet Printer is nice, but a little pricey.

I then discovered this HP Deskjet D1660, inspected its dimensions, and decided to give it a go.

I packed it for a business trip in the Middle East, and it worked fine. All folded up, it's about the size of a regular bread bin. And it is light enough. It was a life saver on this particular trip.

Print quality is fine. I configured the settings to print in "Fast Draft" mode, which is noticeably quicker, uses less ink, and is sufficient for most printing requirements.

So, a portable (but checked-in flight bag) printing solution at a fraction of the price!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 28, 2010 9:34 AM BST

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