Thursday, 31 March 2011

Where there's smoke, there's nonsense

Last weekend the control box to our smoke alarms started buzzing loudly. We checked the high-tech digitized panel, and it said there was a fault in the lounge and that the battery was disconnected. Sounds like time for a new 9-volt in the ol' detector, no? Um, no. That would be too simple.

Turns out only a technician can change the battery or even test if the smoke detectors are working, which can only be done by blowing smoke on them. Seriously. (Tech dude had an aerosal can of smoke, something I never knew existed nor did I envision it ever being blown around my flat like we were doing some low-rent Backdraft sequel). That's effed up.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Home sweet Hulu -- watching US TV in the UK

One of the most frustrating things about living in the UK was missing out on American TV shows. Some of our favorites didn't air here or were years behind in the episodes. I finally figured out a way around this, and I'm going to share the secret -- use a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

StrongVPN did the trick for me. It's not free, but the prices are reasonable and it works extremely well. I pay $7 a month for a lite package (you have to buy a minimum of three months at a time), but you can get it cheaper if you pay by the year. They have customer service reps in live chat that come on immediately and solve problems surprisingly quickly should you need help (which I have a couple of times over three months of use).

With StrongVPN, I can watch Hulu without a hitch. I listen to Pandora radio stations and watch PBS shows. All of those websites are free to anyone in the U.S. -- or to anyone that appears to be in the U.S. It's very easy to connect, just go online using your regular Internet account, then connect to StrongVPN and just like that, you're in the States (virtually speaking). You can select IPs in other countries, too, so if you're in the U.S. and longing to see UK shows on BBC iPlayer, you could sign up for an IP on my side of the pond.

The VPN service also lets me watch HBO's online content thanks to a relative in the States who subscribes to the network who lets us use her cable account login (she doesn't do computers, so wasn't making use of one of the perks that comes with her subscription -- we were happy to help her get her money's worth). This has been fabulous for us, because it allowed us to see the final season of Big Love -- something that is years behind in the UK and only came back to the airwaves here this year after several years of absence. If she subscribed to Showtime or other premium channels, we could access that online, too. I have no doubt we could sign up for Netflix as well using a relative's address as our "home" address in the States and our US credit card.

I'm no technical expert, but the basics of what StrongVPN does is it gives your computer an IP address in the U.S., which is what sites that restrict streaming video by country are looking for. We tried that earlier this year through a freebie IP hider called Hotspot Shield. It worked for a couple of months before Hulu and Netflix started denying us access to their sites. We had been paying for Hulu Prime and a Netflix account, so we were spending cash on things we couldn't even use at that point. The freebie software just can't offer as consistent cover as the paid service and the streaming websites are able to bust the false IPs.

What really got us started down the road of trying to find ways to watch US shows online was the purchase of my new Dell Studio laptop last year. We paid extra to get a laptop with an HDMI port, and that has revolutionized how we watch TV. We connect the computer to our 50-inch plasma via an HDMI cable, and just like that we're watching shows on the big screen in high quality (and often in HD quality from HBO). I bought a wireless mouse to use as a "remote control" to pause and select programs from my comfy couch (we put the laptop on a tray table next to the TV).

I know some people online say they keep up with shows by downloading them from bit torrent or other sites. I don't know what you open yourself up for by downloading that stuff, either legally or by way of whatever hidden malware could be in the files. I don't mess with that -- I'd rather pay a little bit and get something that works well and doesn't put me or the laptop at risk.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Off the hook

Something sinister is going on in public restrooms. I'm not talking about hook-up spots where people in the know go to "mingle;" I'm talking about actual hooks. Or rather, the lack thereof. Are hook gremlins stealing them away in the night? Are they worth a few coins on the scrap-metal market? Are they melded into some art installation at the Tate Modern?

Hooks are cheap and easy to install. Why oh why are they almost never in bathroom stalls? I'm out shopping, I've got a coat, a purse and a shopper bag (currently my lovely Orla Kiely shopper from Tesco, so cute and so hard to find I had to pay nearly triple to get one on eBay). I am NOT putting all that on the (curiously damp) floor of a public restroom. I might as well just set them in the toilet.

I had to cross my legs and head for home earlier this week when I discovered the ladies' loo at the Broad Street Mall was heinously hookless. I could've went out of my way to find a better restroom elsewhere, but I wanted to go home before long anyway. It just meant cutting a couple stops out so I could get there sooner. So a few stores lost business due to lack of a simple amenity in the bathroom.

Bathroom designers and maintainers everywhere, please hook us up. Customers may stay longer, spend more, and pick your business over others due to the facilities. Who knows, maybe you'll have enough extra cash to even keep soap in the dispensers. I can dream.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

There's a story behind this...

I spotted this lonely high-heeled shoe under a seat in a bus shelter on King's Road on Saturday afternoon. Something interesting went down Friday night, methinks.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Dancing King

Did you know there are male belly dancers? I didn't, until I saw the poster at left. I don't know much about the art form other than what I've seen in movies. It's not too surprising that male dancers get ignored in film -- Hollywood prefers putting hot chicks in skimpy outfits (remember the Charlie's Angels flick where the ladies went undercover as belly dancers? All I could think was "Seems you should have a little belly to do a belly dance. Harrumph!").

I'm going to pass on this one (a mixture of frugality and a desire to be home Friday night getting my Hulu on). But I'd bet he's pretty good or the restaurant wouldn't consider him enough of a draw to promote, so it's worth a go if you're in the mood for dinner and a show.

If you're in Reading and have £25 to spare (which covers admission and dinner), check him out at Mangal Restaurant tomorrow night (March 18). Otherwise, you can groove to his moves below (at least I think it's him; at any rate, it's a male belly dancer named Ozgen).

Monday, 14 March 2011

Costumes for a cause

The English love to dress up. Randomly, throughout the year, rather than primarly just at Halloween like us Yanks do. I heard it discussed on radio one Halloween, and the DJ couldn't understand why Halloween was such a big holiday in the States when it's just kinda "eh" here. A caller explained that people don't dress up as often in the U.S., so Halloween is the big blowout for donning costumes. Here, it seems like most times I hear mention of a kids' birthday party, the words "fancy dress" are included. Not sure how well that would go down in the States if parents needed a costume each time Timmy got invited to party.

Not only that, but I often see adults in costume on the high street. Usually it's to draw attention to some store promotion or a fund-raiser. The lovely "brides" above fall into the latter category. Last week they cheerily called for donations for Oxfam's International Women's Day. For £1 you could draw on their gowns, which would later be ripped up to make something or other (a quilt or some artwork perhaps? I'm getting too old to remember details without a notepad). They were so personable and excited about their cause that I gave them £3, then went into a store and returned a hat that didn't suit me which I'd bought on clearance for £3. So basically I donated a hat.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Poundland security and royal wedding tat

Yesterday I went shopping at Poundland and the 99p Store at the Broad Street Mall ('cause I run a high-dollar operation here at Casa Groovy). To my surprise, uniformed security guards stalked the aisles at both stores.

One guy sported a headset a la those worn by hipsters pushing chinos at the Gap, the other rocked a beard which he thoughtfully stroked as he scrutinized shoppers as though he'd just landed the inspector role in some new murder-mystery show.

WTF are people stealing at Poundland? What reasoning goes into that? Is someone saying, "Oi, I'm not paying a quid for this Osmonds DVD? No way would I pay more than 50p for that loaf of panettone that's bigger than my head!"

To justify hiring security, the stores must be losing more to theft than the cost of an additional salary. That's amazing.

It kinda harshes my groove if I'm being closely watched by an uber-serious guard while I'm languidly contemplating the pink dish-gloves with the feathered fringe. I'd be an idiot to risk a criminal record to steal them (and probably not much brighter to buy them, which I did. It turns out they look super-cute on but burn my hands as the hot water seems to gain a few degrees when translated to my skin through the thin latex). But apparently some shoppers think it worth the risk. I don't get it.

On a side note, I made a fun find at the 99p store: A William & Kate calendar! I snatched it up from the spot by the register, saying, "This is too funny, I've got to have it!" The stony-faced cashier didn't say anything, which led me to wonder if he was so stony-faced because I'd inadvertently insulted his passion for collecting royal wedding memorabilia, or if it was because working the till at the 99p Store serving crowds of customers all day was wearing thin.

I suppose some take the royal wedding memorabilia and the wedding itself quite seriously. Given that the mementos include everything from condoms to teabags, I gotta think others find it a tad much, too. Since I'm plop in the middle of the country where wedding fever should reach its highest pitch, I choose to enjoy the insanity by collecting whatever (majorly inexpensive) items I come across. I'll take them out one distant day to show American friends who, no doubt, will glance at them and shrug.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

A rose by any other name would go out of business...

Hubby: "Which power company do we use, is it No Power?"

Me: "No, it's NPower; No Power would be the worst name EVER for a power company."

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Home is where the Hob is

The sign above illustrates the general feeling of having a pint at the Hobgoblin pub -- enter and you're in a different world. Posted inside the front door, the notice inspires a sense of the pub as a unique place to be, a special club anyone can join merely by entering. The Hob is on Reading's Broad Street steps away from Starbucks and several other coffee shops (the spot is known as "Coffee Corner"), and once inside you really do feel about 100 miles (and years) away from the cookie-cutter world outside.

The pub is small, dark, often loud and crowded. The building is hundreds of years old, and exudes all the character age entails. A wander through reveals interesting old wood furnishings and little nooks beyond the main room perfect for an intimate chat. The bartender frequently disappears down a narrow stairway in the floor to bring up more brew.

The patrons seem laid back and friendly, coming from a variety of ages and backgrounds -- but more recall first-hand the days when music came on vinyl and TVs had a dial than those who don't. I get the feeling this is a sort of "Cheers" place -- everybody knows your name. Hipsters looking for club music and quick hook-ups should skip it.

It's specialty -- beyond an other-worldly atmosphere -- is a wide variety of ales. The walls and ceiling are covered with beer clips from the thousands of ales offered over the years.

The few times I've been, I can tell it's a home away from home for many. A rare find indeed.