Monday 22 December 2014

A last-minute Christmas

OK, most years I publish a few gift ideas on here but this year has been frantic and if I'm honest time has been short. So, some Christmas gift ideas for people who haven't had the chance to get out just yet, for the fortysomething bloke in your life...

1. A good bottle of single malt is often welcomed by the mature male type. Not every time; if he's teetotal or plain doesn't like the stuff, obviously it will be a disaster. Check also the sort you're getting; my own taste veers towards the unpeated, non-smoky flavours of Penderyn (the Welsh one) or Glengoyne. I was sent a sample of Bowmore and it's much, much smokier, peaty, tastes almost of seaweed. For some this is utter whisky heaven; for me it's something I can appreciate rather than something I'd choose. Oban makes a good mid-point.

2. Books: in an age in which people can download the latest best seller to their computer without thinking about it, something quirky can be welcome. I've been wading through "The Philosophy of Beards"  by Thomas S. Gowing which takes you through the history of beard-growing as well as the physiology and is great fun. "Becoming the Perfect Gentleman" by Zach Falconer-Barfield and Nic Wing contains such gems as putting cutlery down whilst speaking, brushing your teeth and flossing (no kidding...) and what you need in a wardrobe (don't forget a single reversible belt will do you nicely). Don't take it too seriously and it's pretty entertaining. For once I'm not going to recommend one of my own books; they're all about work and I wouldn't wish any of them on anyone for Christmas.

3. Music: Two ideas beyond boring tokens. One I've given to my daughter. An Albumcard is a great idea; select the album you want to send and you get a greetings card with the cover on it and a download code. So the recipient still gets the album you wanted to give them, the fun of opening a proper present but they get it in a format they will actually use.
The second I've given to my daughter (don't anybody say 'spoiled'). Spotify has quietly launched family sharing, so you can get a discount for household members who want their own account. For a fiver a month she can have all the music she wants in Premium form, so it's downloadable and keepable-for-a-few-weeks (and you can always re-download), no ads, take it with you on the mobile app...with a few exceptions concerning artists who don't want to play, just about everything is available.

No. 1 is available from just about any supermarket. No. 3 part 2 at least is available as a download anytime. Help yourselves - and have a great break!

Monday 21 July 2014

Pillar of sound

I'm doing fewer gadget reviews on this blog for what I think is the good reason that an awful lot of people are making an awful lot of gadgets very well indeed. It's probably indicative of my age that when I started writing about this stuff, there was some poorly-made tat out there and some weedy little speakers that were quite overpriced.

Which is why it's a pleasure to write about the Stelle Pillar, £249 from an Apple store near you (they will also be available elsewhere I'm sure). You can see from the picture that they come in different colours so you're likely to find one that will look good in your living room. The better news is that they're chargeable with the enclosed adapter so proximity to a wall socket isn't an issue when it's full of juice; it will also charge an external device through its USB socket.

Mine is black and it was very easy to pair with my iPhone although it seemed to struggle when I tried to add my iMac it wasn't so keen; it recognised my Nexus tablet OK but switching between this and the phone wasn't great. If you don't mind pairing again every time you want to use a different product with it, you'll be fine in my experience.

So, what about the sound quality? The answer is that it's very good. It has speakerphone capacity which is great, it has 15 hours of playback and although I'm not one for quoting decibels at people - they always seem a bit meaningless to me in the context of a review - it had a decent bit of bass oomph so that you can enjoy listening to music quietly as well as loudly.

Gripes are few; it came with a plastic disc whose purpose I've yet to ascertain (I suppose it can stand on it but...why?) and for a geek like me switching between devices could have been smoother. The speakers being built into a small unit means there is inevitable next to no stereo "spread". My wife had to fiddle with her iPhone audio settings before she was convinced it could play classics reasonably (my Beatles, Stranglers, Madness and other middle-aged-rocker fare were fine). And when you switch it on, the voice that says 'hello' is Australian - that's not a gripe, just a bit of trivia, before I get complaints!

For the vast majority of listeners I suspect it'll be a very good buy.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Weight loss - the inside story

This evening I'm going for a coffee with a colleague. She's been very kind about my weight loss - I've mentioned my efforts on here a few times (well, you would). I said I'd bring people up to date about my weight loss on this blog - anyone who's interested, read on.

Here are the facts. 16 months or so ago needed some benign, hereditary cysts removed from my scalp. I was expecting it all to be a bit routine. I visited the doctor and since I was 47 they put me on the scales.

I was told I was on the high-risk list for diabetes and my blood pressure suggested a stroke before 50 was entirely probable. That plus the fact that my father hadn't made it to 50 because of his heart (we'd always blamed the smoking) did a lot to focus my mind.

So I went on the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet (huge, huge thanks to my friend and colleague Grenville Bradder for drawing my attention to this) and reintroduced the gym into my life - moreso since November as my chiropodist finally zapped an ingrowing toenail which had been a persistent little bugger.

So, having unknowingly crept up to 18 stone I'm now just about over 14. The GP surgery tells me I should lose about one kilo (2lbs) and then focus on staying there. The pictures below tell a story - the tieless one is from 2010, the one in the middle is from 2014 and the one on the right is not quite a month old.

Photos: James Poulter, Be-Wizard, Civil Service
The one in the middle is my least favourite - the suit is tailored, the hair freshly coiffed and I clearly think I look something.

So my coffee-drinking colleague said to me a little while ago, this must have done a lot for your confidence. And yes, the answer is that it has - but you might be surprised to hear it took a while. At first it was shot to pieces - and that's what they don't tell you when you lose weight.

I do a lot of presentation work on stage, which is why there are pictures of me doing so. And over the last couple of years I've been doing some stand-up comedy as well. Some of it's been OK - the first one was a rant about the tyranny of slim-fit shirts, which chimed with some people.

In terms of the presentations on, say, social media (I wrote a book on it in 2008 that came out in 2009 when it was pretty new) I'd occasionally refer to this blog, saying something like "I run a small men's lifestyle blog...not a lifestyle blog for small men, obviously [PATS GUT]..." and it would get a suitable laugh.

So, guess what? The weight went down and I didn't have my fall-back humour subject for when things were flagging, either for the corporate gigs or for the comedy. Whoops. The comedy started going downhill immediately - I made the mistake of trying the slim-fit shirt routine as a fairly averagely-built man. The audience was bemused - and I found myself explaining I used to be bigger. Only a brief sentence or so, but if you have to explain why something's funny, it probably isn't.

You could argue that on some level I'd built being fat into my identity and found it rather comforting. Indeed, you might think I'd unconsciously not only justified it in my mind but made it essential. What I'm certain of is that on stage during 2014 until as recently as last week I could feel my legs shaking, which hadn't happened before.

Look sharper
That wasn't the only thing hitting my confidence. If you're about to go on stage or TV, the natural thing to do is to check yourself in the mirror - is the tie straight, the hair OK, boring stuff like that. After a major change as I've had, for a while it didn't look like 'me' looking back. OK, it was and is a better look than I'd had for about 15-20 years, but that feeling of going in front of an audience looking unfamiliar and without the fallback fat jokes was unsettling. If you lose weight noticeably (and believe me the best part of four stone is noticeable) you have to adjust to the new look and become comfortable with it. It can take time.

I went to my friend and comedy mentor Tim Dingle for a bit of help. We had a session in which he explained (as a bit of a psychologist) that my feeling insecure on stage was b*ll*cks because when you break it down, it means I was concerned the audience wouldn't be satisfied I was fat enough. Which was of course nonsense. We worked on some calming techniques before and during presentations and stand-up routines. We looked at different ways of producing jokes.

I also spoke to my good friend Dr. Lynda Shaw, whose knowledge of psychology is considerable. She said my belief that I'd identified myself as 'fat' and grown to welcome it was probably right, and that I needed to adjust to the new version.

She also suggested getting rid of all of my 'fat' clothes; I was reluctant but this actually took care of itself. I had a few of my tailored suits altered but there's only so much they can do. The suit in the middle picture above now has a waistline that fits but they can't make the armholes and legholes smaller, and the sweep of material at the front (including the length of the lapels) to cover the gut can't be reduced, so you end up with something that doesn't actually fall off but which looks like a very baggy suit indeed. So I now have one suit that fits. I may need to buy another.

Losing weight can cost a fortune. They don't tell you that either!

Happy ending so far
Rationality has kicked in now. I can see at a glance that the bloke in the picture on the right is going to be less prone to coronaries (like the one from which my dad died at my age) and the GP has confirmed that any risk of diabetes has receded into the distance. At 49 I look and feel loads healthier than I did at 45 and probably 35 - more fool me for putting the weight on in the first place, but I'm fine now. I went jogging with a teenage family member the other day - they got through about a sixth of my normal routine. I hadn't realised my energy levels had lifted like that, but clearly they have.

I'm not blogging about this to show off. I just think there's an untold side to the weight loss issue that will affect middle-aged people of both sexes - seriously, there can be downsides to work through. If it's happening to you, it's worth persevering. Had you not read everything I've written and just seen the pictures, you wouldn't see any advantage in the fat versions at all, and no matter how uncomfortable you might be with a slimmer version of yourself at first, it's the same thing.

And I'm getting back to the stand-up. Eventually. Probably. I just don't feel the same need to get on stage and justify a major flaw any more...

Thursday 22 May 2014

Cooler shirts from Smartweave

Last night there was torrential rain so it must be Summer. Women get to run around almost half-naked in this season; if men want to look respectable we still have suits or at least formal shirts to contend with. And we don't like the sweaty patches look. Last year I was on assignment for the New Statesman in Gibraltar, wearing my 'lightweight' pale grey suit and when I took the jacket off I looked as though I'd been in a shower.

Whether a shirt from Smartweave would have overcome that level of saturation I don't know, but I've worn the sample they sent twice on hot days and it seems pretty effective. No patches, but I was definitely perspiring like a whatsit underneath. It would have added to my confidence in any meetings I attended whilst wearing one.

Don't get me wrong; you'll still niff a bit. Some journalists in the Nationals used the shirts in the gym or on long cycle rides to test them and I wouldn't advise that - but for ordinary use, keeping yourself comfortable and dry, the shirt seemed about perfect.

There's a good selection of shirts on the site with variations in collars, fits and cuffs; illustrated is a relatively casual white jobbie with a tartan trim, I have the grey with black trim and it looks very good indeed. If you want to go formal for work shirts you can do so, without the trim and double cuffs for cufflinks are available. I did a little mystery shop and asked the difference between tailored and slim fit, not telling them I was writing about their company, and had a thorough response within an hour, which bodes well for customer service. Also the shirts are well put together; the fit is good on me and the seams appear strong.

I'm not short of shirts, if I'm honest; if I were I'd certainly be looking at spending around £75 a garment from these guys.

Best thing: Appears to work, sweat wicked away as promised, but looks and feels like an ordinary cotton shirt. Companies attempting this sort of thing before have produced odd-feeling and odd-looking garments but not this time.
Worst thing: Remembering not to use conditioner in the wash, which interrupts the drying technology. You can always wash it again, conditioner-free, and its de-sweating properties will be restored, but I'm a swine for forgetting and sticking it in with the rest of the whites.

Thursday 1 May 2014

Weight loss diary 1: Weird Fish

OK, this time last year I said I'd keep you all informed about how my (slightly enforced) weight loss programme was going. I am nothing if not a man of my word, and since I'm between three and a half and four stone down I see nothing wrong with telling absolutely everybody about it who wants to know, and several people who don't.

I'll write about the psychological effects another time (they're not universally positive, you might be surprised to hear) but for the moment let's consider practical stuff. I am pretty much surrounded by clothes that don't fit. I went to the gym (yes the gym) a few months ago wearing my gym kit and taking civvies with me; I forgot to take a belt and, you've guessed it, the chinos simply fell off.

Trying something new

So it's with some trepidation that I'm trying to work out what my waist size is these days. I was stretching into a 40in but have been trying 36 and more recently going into a 34in in certain brands. One of these is Weird Fish, which has made me aware of its Spring collection. The trousers they sent over to try are well-made, solid stitching and a great casual style; they're the sort in which you can unzip the lower leg to make shorts which don't look as though they've been converted from longer versions, and which somehow don't have a scratchy zip. Weird Fish is one of those companies that makes slightly tighter waists than some; I can do them up and they're comfortable when they're on but I may have been better off with a 36; the jeans I'd bought from another manufacturer the week before are a 34 and are very slightly loose. One day someone is going to explain to all of these manufacturers that an inch is an inch (I suspect the jeans are designed to flatter me while the Weird Fish measurement is slightly more honest). Click the image for a larger pic.

Speaking of flattering, they also sent a jumper, the indigo model you can see to the right. My wife tells me it's very flattering; it's warm enough for the Spring and it goes very nicely with the trousers. The red detailing on the collar and button area make it particularly appealing and if I say so myself the slim cut means I look better than I've done in about ten years. Perhaps oddly there's plenty of room in the XL size they sent; of course I'm used to XL being skin tight, so maybe this is what everyone else has been feeling like for a while!

These clothes aren't cheap - you'll get a penny change from £60 for the trousers and the same amount of coins from £70 for the jumper. But they're nicely made - the stitching suggests that unlike cheaper brands they won't be falling to pieces anytime soon - and the pre-fading on the jumper particularly makes it very stylish.

Their website and shops may well be hearing from me again.

Friday 20 December 2013

A last-minute Christmas

OK, like last year I'd intended to go through December with an idea for a Christmas present each day, writing about them in a little depth. Then some stuff happened - I won't bore you with the details - and it's suddenly the 20th and I've covered very little.

Which is a shame because I've been sent a few good items to look at. The Colgate ProClinical A1500 toothbrush would make a good stocking filler for the hygiene conscious; it adjusts its pressure and speed according to where it thinks it is in the mouth. There's a display and a 30-second pacer that tells you when you've done enough on one area.

I liked the idea a lot and since I'd recently replaced my own toothbrush I passed this to my daughter to see what she thought. She found the display a little disconcerting - difficult to read while the brush is actually in your mouth, which is when the display will count - but in spite of her protestations, she's got cleaner teeth than she had before.

For me this has been a year of getting more and more clutter around the place and given that I write a lot about technology this means a lot of wires. This is why I thought BlueLounge's CableBin so useful; it's basically a large bin with a gap down the side so you can put an extension cable in, and then have all of your other cables simply coming out of the bin.

It really tidies the place up and for all I know makes it safer, too.

Another gadget on sale this week is at Aldi - the 7in DVD player for £39.99. I can confirm it works, the packaging is nice and stable and it plays many formats on DVD or CDs.


I'd have reservations about how many kids (I'm assuming a younger market) will want it. It's an exaggeration to say we're all on downloads now, but many people are and they won't want this player. If they do, they may want a larger screen. It's only ten years or so since this sort of technology was a big wow and if you're certain your recipient wants to watch a DVD whilst travelling (and hasn't got a plain laptop) then go for it; my instinct is that these things have had their day.


If this year has been about anything for me then it's been about getting fitter. This is where my favourite gadget of the moment, the MisFit Shine, comes into its own. It's an activity tracker worn like a wristwatch; you sync it with an app on your phone and it tells you what you've been doing.

It can take a little getting used to. You can read the time from it but it has a system of lights which take some deciphering. You can tell it when you're performing a particular activity - swimming was mine - by tapping on it three times, but I didn't tap correctly apparently so after a one-kilometre swim it thought I'd been fairly inactive.

Persevere, though, as it's a lovely little gadget that tells you how much of your daily target you've achieved and how many calories you've burned. Don't do what I did, though, and keep it on whilst getting the Christmas tree out of the loft. The wristband can catch on things, then you get downstairs and find you haven;t got the thing on your wrist any more, and the lighting in the loft rather suggests you won't be able to find it again even if you try.

But a lovely gadget and my favourite of the season - all too briefly, I'm afraid.

Monday 9 December 2013

Christmas presents 1: Scent to you

Now this is a good idea. The new Vivabox, available in exotic venues like Boots, is simple but genius. Costing £37.99, it consists simply of seven small samples of eau de toilette - you can buy one set for men and one for women - and a voucher for a full bottle of whichever you like, from The Perfume Shop. It's as simple as that.

The even better news is that the scents aren't rubbish. My wife wasn't drastically struck on the selection for women but she's a fussy whatsit who's fond of her Jo Malone - you know, the seventy-quid-a-bottle factory (it's rather good but then it pretty much ought to be). She had a selection from Lacoste, Boss, Ghost, Paco Rabanne and more, and no these aren't their second-tier offerings, these are the top sellers.

I was rather happier with my box. Boss Orange Man is something I rather like although my wife doesn't  so that's remained unopened, like the Hugo Man; I'm wearing the Carolina Herrera 212 Men at the moment and it's a little sweet for me (to me it smells feminine; I don't get this 'this one's for men, this one's for women' ethos so many perfume makers think ought to be a hard and fast rule, either you like it or you don't, and if I wanted to smell flowery one day that's down to me).

I suspect I'm going to opt for the bottle of Eau D'Issey but I could also have chosen Paco Rabanne Black XS, Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male or James Bond 007. Actually I don't dislike the James Bond, but you'd feel such a pillock buying something with a name like that - and isn't it ironic that it should come out in the Daniel Craig era; if ever there were a 007 who wouldn't give a stuff how he smelled, he's the one.

Good and bad

It's not a faultless scheme. I can't exchange my voucher online, presumably because it's a come-on to get me into the shop in the first place. That's a valid promotional idea but a Christmas present that's a promotion may not appeal to everyone. Also, I can't go into the shop and use it as a contribution towards a more expensive scent. I'm starting to run short of my beloved Armani Code, but the voucher is strictly for exchange for one of the scents included in the promotion.

On the other hand I don't have to use the voucher until the middle of 2015 so nobody's hurrying me. The samples contain enough for a day or three's splash each, so I can get used to how each of them smells rather than have a quick sniff and buy on the spot.

Above all, if you or your partner have ever had a scent given to you that you don't like, you'll be appallingly aware of how awkward that can be - you think you should wear it when the giver comes to visit, you don't want to be rude...this selection idea is more personal than a bland gift voucher but it also gives the recipient a decent breadth of choice.

I'd get one for someone if I were you - then maybe next year they'll increase the range.